When people ask me for advice on writing,* I’ll often respond with “Never use utilize. Always use use.” Sure, it’s a little smart-assy (I prefer to think of it as aphoristic), but it’s more than just snark. I’ll let David Foster Wallace explain:
[Utilize] is a puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn’t do, its extra letters and syllables don’t make a writer seem smarter. I tell my students that using utilize makes you seem either pompous or so insecure that you’ll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look smart. The same is true for the noun utilization, and for vehicle as used for car, for residence as used for home, for indicate as used for say, for presently, at present, at this time, and at the present time as used for now, and so on. What’s worth remembering about puff-words is something that good writing teachers spend a lot of time drumming into undergrads: ‘Formal writing’ does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing.
More thoughts from DFW at the invaluable Oxford Dictionaries blog.
*Don’t laugh! It happens. No, seriously.