Can the word "facing" be used both ways?

To write

major water problems facing the world


challenges and opportunities facing low- and middle-income countries and their citizens

seems to me to switch the roles.

Is it OK to use facing in this way, or would the only correct usage be faced by in these two examples?

  • Do you mean that the role is switched between your 2 examples? Or do you mean that both your examples illustrate the same 'role'? If the latter, please provide examples of what you consider the other 'role' to be. – TrevorD Jun 5 '13 at 12:31
  • @TrevorD: I believe the O.P. is asking this: If we say, "There are major water problems facing the world," we really mean, "The world is facing major water problems." So, should facing in that instance be replaced with faced by, or is it okay to use facing reflexively? – J.R. Jun 5 '13 at 14:28
  • +1 You face a situation -- situations don't "face" you -- they "stare at you (in the face)", etc. However we could say "in the face of" a situation, "faced by" a situation, etc. Essentially here the meaning is one of "confronting" -- it is for the subject to confront (face), not the situation. Hope you get the drift. – Kris Jun 5 '13 at 15:00
  • @Kris: Some writers (like Dostoevsky?) might disagree. Sometimes, situations can face us. – J.R. Jun 6 '13 at 1:20

The terms facing and faced by are somewhat interchangeable. If a challenge is facing you, it follows that it is also faced by you.

  • The idiomatic sense of 'confronting' does not seem to apply bilaterally. I'm not very sure. You may like to check and update. – Kris Jun 5 '13 at 14:57
  • I believe it does. You confront a problem, it in turn can confront you. – ElendilTheTall Jun 5 '13 at 15:04
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    But "The problems facing me are insurmountable" is fine, for example. – ElendilTheTall Jun 5 '13 at 16:03
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    Replace confront or face with 'look at', and follow the eyes. If a problem looks at you, it doesn't mean you are looking at the problem. If you look at a problem, it doesn't mean the problem is looking back at you. – JustinC Jun 5 '13 at 17:43
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    They were not arbitrary in the least. They are all words that suggest a subject's perspective or orientation; which means they can not be so easily interchanged in usage without implying or inferring a different meaning. – JustinC Jun 7 '13 at 0:36

It's very common and perfectly correct to use facing in either "direction": problems can face us and we can face problems. At its core, facing is just a matter of orientation. If something has its "front" toward us, it is facing us. If we have our front toward something, we are facing it. When a problem faces us, it just means that the problem has presented itself to us. And it can do so whether we accept it or not: We can try to ignore (turn our back to) global warming, for example, but global warming would still be facing us, even as we avoid facing global warming.

Merriam-Webster has this to say about face:

6 a : to have as a prospect : be confronted by <face a grim future> b : to be a prospect or a source of concern for <the problems that face us> c : to bring face-to-face <he was faced with ruin>


To write "major water problems facing the world" or "challenges and opportunities facing low- and middle-income countries and their citizens", seems to me to switch the roles. Is it OK to use "facing" in this way, or is would the only correct usage be "faced by" in these two examples?

How would "a water problem" face anything?

Something or somebody might face a water problem, but you can't interchange the subjects and retain the same meaning as a matter of perspective. To face, confront, negotiate, or any other similar "activity" are best understood as activities done with intent towards a perspective or orientation.

To face anything, it means the primary subject adjusts their orientation to be more aligned with the secondary subject. The secondary subject does not need to do anything, or even be aware of what the primary subject intends or has done whatever they were subjected to (being faced, being looked at, being mocked).

However, because of the concept of allusion, a certain way of creating a figure of speech, you can at times suggest that things that normally do not possess an ability to demonstrate perspective or orientation with intent, might do so through alluded embodiment. Such things are now "living, thinking, purposeful entities." Suggesting something though isn't a matter of fact. Water can not nor will ever be able to bring suit against people for the problems we have allegedly inflicted on it. People might be able to, but of their own accord, and not at the behest or behalf of water.

Literally, it would not make sense in the slightest for inanimate objects or concepts to "face" a subject. Figuratively, sure, go ahead, but realize, it may not be well understood or appreciated in the same manner by the audience. It will likely translate with difficultly, too, if that is ever a concern.



Let's face it.
Google Ngram: facing problems vs. problems facing , English, 1800-2000

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