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’.


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.

Use and usage