I need to find a positive synonym for 'problem' or 'worst' for some copy I am writing. The context is that these are ratings for student performance in a tabular format (as in, "problem topics: lorem ipsum" or "worst topics: lorem ipsum"), and while I want to indicate that the topics I am describing need improvement, I don't want to sound overly negative.

There is a good chance that the students have had exposure to basic economic theory, so I am considering "marginal" (especially since the topics being described are being prioritized to maximize the marginal benefit of studying). But this does not seem to be a standard usage. In fact, outside of economics, marginal seems to indicate the opposite of what I'm looking for.

Any ideas?

  • 1
    You cannot find a positive synonym for negative words. I don't understand what you are looking for. Perhaps poor or imperfect?
    – terdon
    Sep 24, 2013 at 17:48
  • Do you mean "topics"? Or "areas"? "Topics" makes me think something along the lines of "topic for a paper." It's hard to tell if lorem ipsum in your examples refers to behavioral problems or academic problems. If I'm catching your meaning, I'd be inclined to use something like, "Areas that could be improved: lorem ipsem."
    – J.R.
    Sep 24, 2013 at 17:49
  • @J.R. You are catching the meaning. I am specifically tabulating "sub-subjects" in a large subject (mathematics) that the student needs improvement in. So I would call that an "academic problem". Sorry for the ambiguity. I didn't notice it, since it isn't a problem in the domain I'm working in.
    – nomen
    Sep 24, 2013 at 17:56
  • 1
    I would avoid marginal. In economics, the marginal value of something is the value of 1 more of that thing. Sep 24, 2013 at 19:01
  • In economics, the marginal value of something is the derivative of the value with respect to the thing. The usage is fine, at least in the contexts of economics and political science ("marginal voters" -- what we call swing votes).
    – nomen
    Sep 24, 2013 at 20:32

2 Answers 2


You're looking for euphemisms. The business world is prepared to support you! :-)

Traditional euphemisms for "problems" are "challenges" or "opportunities".

Euphemisms for "worst" could be "low-hanging fruit" or "easiest target" or even "top priority"

  • 1
    Puzzle is another positive way to view problems, especially homework problems. Sep 24, 2013 at 18:31
  • 1
    A professor in a compiler class included a set of optional features we could add to our compilers for extra credit. It was a list, and we could pick any, all, or none. He rated them "easy" "more challenging" and "most instructive." Sep 24, 2013 at 18:36
  • Like code with the COME FROM command. Sep 24, 2013 at 18:38
  • Terdon does not have the exposure to business language. Sep 25, 2013 at 1:34

It appears that you're looking for phrases that indicate change is needed, but have a neutral tone; you're trying to avoid sub-standard, mediocre, etc.

Next steps is a good fit to indicate that something needs work, but doesn't have an overtly negative connotation.

An equally bland phrase is areas to focus on.

This is my least favorite, but it might be what you're looking for. If you need three concise column headings, it's possible that: excellent, good, other might be okay.

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