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We can talk about "the matter at hand" or "the matter at issue" and they seem to mean just about the same thing: something along the lines of "the matter currently under discussion." Is there a difference between these two phrases?

I think it's clear that "the issue at hand" is way better than "the issue at issue" but is there a reason for this?

Maybe you just want to avoid the confusion of using two meanings of a word so close to each other. Or maybe calling something an issue already implies that it is "at issue," so in that case saying "the issue at issue" would be redundant.

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I've never heard the phrase "matter at issue" before. –  American Luke Jul 29 '12 at 1:32
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@Luke Interestingly, the MW entry for relevant uses both phrases in different parts of the definition. My take is that "matter at hand" means "the thing we're talking about", while "matter at issue" means "the thing under debate/in dispute" (and would more commonly use the preposition "in" rather than "at"), but this is just my native-speaker's intuition, so I'll refrain from giving a full answer in hopes that someone more confident comes along. –  Cameron Jul 29 '12 at 1:58
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@Cameron: Google Books says both prepositions are used about equally with "issue", but "in" is overwhelmingly more common with "hand". I'd just about accept your distinction, in the sense that it's feasible some people might use both forms and actually apply it. But I'd have thought most people use one form, and let context dictate the meaning. Or not, as the case may be - if you're chairing a fractious meeting and trying to calm things you might wish to imply you were only referring to the subject under discussion, not the subject of disagreement. –  FumbleFingers Jul 29 '12 at 2:38
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1 Answer

At hand means 'what's in front of us right now', i.e, the next thing on the agenda.

At issue means 'what's causing trouble', i.e, the difficult thing.

So if some issue is causing trouble now, it's the matter at issue -- you don't really want to say the issue at issue, because that draws attention to the phrase instead of the problem.

And if it's the next thing on the agenda, it's the matter at hand or the issue at hand. Either one works and they mean the same thing.

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+1: You're answers are always so good. My only quibble is that at issue doesn't always mean "what's causing trouble"; it can simply mean "what is under consideration at the moment." At issue is whether we should build a park or invest in infrastructure. Granted that may be a difficult situation, but it doesn't have to be. –  Robusto Jul 29 '12 at 7:07
    
@Robusto: You're right, but I was simplifying. At issue means that someone has, um, issues, as some say; i.e, there is a matter on which there are a number of opinions and/or aspects to consider. It may not come to daggers, but significant glances are not out of the question. –  John Lawler Jul 29 '12 at 13:26
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