English Use and Usage

This is the first of a series of posts on English use and usage. My intention is that, over time, the collection of posts – under the category ‘Words & Phrases’ – will be helpful for people wanting to extend their knowledge and appreciation of the English language.

My preliminary intention was to write about ‘difficult’ words and phrases. On reflection, I decided that in doing so I would be helping to perpetuate the idea of English being a ‘difficult’ language. My belief is rather that English is an ‘interesting’ language. It is a living language and as long as it is living, it will be constantly changing and adapting, taking on new words and forms: it will never be able to be pinned down.

It’s not that I don’t recognise that people coming new to English can find it a challenging language. I do recognise that. By the same token, I found Latin, Greek, French and German ‘difficult’ when I first attempted them. I would be hard put to express myself in any of them these days, but I don’t see them any more as intrinsically ‘difficult’. My view now is that that learning any language can be challenging and if you decide that it is going to be an ‘interesting’ journey you will inevitably learn more, and more enjoyably and effectively, than if you embed in your subconscious mind the conviction that the language is ‘difficult’.

So my aim in this series of posts is to write about words and phrases that I find interesting. I hope my readers will also find them so.

Some of the posts, like this one, will seek to shine a light on distinctions between similar words and between words which have quite different meanings but are sometimes used, inappropriately, as if they meant the same thing.

Use and usage

It seems a good idea to start this series with a fundamental distinction, between use and usage.

What is the difference between ‘use’ and usage’? Both come from the same Latin word usus (noun), which in turn is from the verb uti – to use. So how do they differ?

The difference is subtle but useful.

The noun ‘use’ comes from the verb ‘use’, meaning to employ for a given purpose or put into action, and larger dictionaries will list many variations and adaptations of that basic meaning. Examples are: ‘I use a keyboard to type in these words’ ‘I use a knife and fork to eat my dinner’, ‘I use short words in speaking with small children, because they probably won’t understand long words’. So the noun ‘use’ (with the ‘s’ as in ‘goose’, not, as for the verb, as in ‘cruise’) means a given purpose or application. Examples would be: ‘The English language is in common use around the world’ , ‘I put my keyboard to good use’.

For the noun ‘usage’ the basic dictionary definition can look pretty much the same as that for ‘use’, but with ‘usage’ there is a sense of ‘continued’ or ‘common’ use. And with language, the distinction is that ‘usage’ is the way the language is actually used, as distinct from what might look correct if you try to construct a sentence or phrase from a dictionary and grammar book. Examples would be: ‘Although old-fashioned grammarians say you should never split an infinitive, that is done every day in common usage.’ and ‘I was taught at school that every sentence must have a verb, but actual usage shows that many excellent writers include in their work ‘sentences’ without verbs, such as ‘His arrival at any gathering was always a dramatic event. Bold. Arresting.’

How useful is this distinction? Well, in everyday life it probably doesn’t have a lot of application, but for me it is an interesting distinction, partly because of the origin of the words. As indicated above, both use and usage come to us from the Latin usus, but usage has arrived via Old French, from the 14th century AD.

But there is a very practical consideration here.

Anyone who wants to be a highly confident, fluent speaker of English would do well to develop an insatiable curiosity to know the appropriate usage, which is a way of employing language at a higher level than technically correct use.

For those who want to have a ready reference on this subject, I recommend The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage.  


5 responses to “English Use and Usage

  1. The definitions seem a bit confusing, or contradictory to the definitions in the ESL Glossary of common EFL/ESL terms (use: everyday, communicative; usage: grammatically correct). Generally, learners of FL are more concerned with “use” (how people speak) than with “usage” (what the grammar book says).

  2. The subtle difference between ‘use’ and ‘usage’ has been explained much better than many books on grammar and usage.

  3. I found this off Google when seeking to clarify the issue for a language learner. Your to-the-point style of writing appeals to me. I understand how the issue can be confusing, but I am indeed very mindful of proper usage. Anyone can use English in wrong and mistaken ways.

  4. Pingback: ‘use’ vs ‘usage’ | General Paper Lessons

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