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I am submitting to a journal, and the guidelines require me to avoid use of the word "issue" as a euphemism for "problem". Thing is, as far as I know the two words are (or can be) synonyms:

problem 2a: an intricate unsettled question

issue 6b (1): a vital or unsettled matter (2): concern, problem

I have frequently been constructing sentences like "An outstanding issue is...," and now I am confused whether that is a valid use of "issue" (at least according to the journal), or whether I should be using "problem" instead.

Could you make clear when to use "issue", and when to use "problem"? Or is there a third word I could use to avoid the issue problem question entirely? (Oh, wait, I think I just answered that last question myself.)

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    If the guidelines require you not to use issue as a euphemism for "problem", then do not use issue as a euphemism for "problem". I am not sure I understand what the question here is. – RegDwigнt Nov 8 '13 at 10:38
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    It could be just that 'issue' has so many senses and sub-senses 4. a. A point or matter of discussion, debate, or dispute: legal and moral issues. b. A matter of public concern: debated economic issues. c. A misgiving, objection, or complaint: had issues with the plan to change the curriculum. d. The essential point; crux: the issue of how to provide adequate child care. e. A culminating point leading to a decision: bring a case to an issue. 5. Informal A personal problem or emotional disorder: The teacher discussed the child's issues with his parents. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 8 '13 at 10:56
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    I would assume that they want you to avoid it in phrases like "an issue with the previous experiments is that they did not address …" where it might be used as a way to avoid criticizing other people's work too harshly. (Or in phrases like "an issue with our experiment …", where it is used for more selfish reasons.) I don't think it's being used as a euphemism in "an outstanding issue …". – Peter Shor Nov 8 '13 at 11:16
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    It really depends on the context. It's entirely appropriate to use issue to refer to a problem you're attacking -- say, the Traveling Salesman Problem -- or with any of the side issues that it brings up. They have to be faced and they can be problematic. But if you're describing your own work, or anybody else's, you have to be direct and critical and say there are problems and name them and explain them and suggest some remedy for them. You can't get away with saying, in effect, "I have issues with that". – John Lawler Nov 8 '13 at 16:45
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    This looks to me like a very good & insightful word choice question. It is not opinion-based in the slightest, let alone "primarily". – Marthaª Nov 8 '13 at 18:21
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"Could you make clear when to use "issue", and when to use "problem"?

The simplest answer is this: when the best word to use is issue, use it; when the best word to use is problem, use it.

I think (along with others in the above comments) context should guide you. Here are two examples, one "correct" and one "incorrect," of how the two words can be used.

Correct:

"An outstanding issue from my perspective concerns the frequency with which people generally use the word issue as a euphemism for the word problem."

Incorrect:

"In my opinion, people who insist on using the word issue when they should use the word problem have issues!"

In other words, there are times when issue is the right word and problem is not; and vice versa. I think the providers of the guidelines would recognize the differences between the two uses of the word issue.

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Since the journal doesn't provide a rationale for its guideline, I can only guess at what its reasoning is, but I suspect that the distinction it is trying to enforce is between matters of contention or controversy ("issues") and difficult puzzles that are in need of solving ("problems"). Obviously these two categories of things overlap—but they don't overlap entirely.

Earthquakes are a serious problem in many parts of the world, but they aren't an issue in the narrow sense of that term because no one seriously advocates on behalf of a pro-earthquake position. Conversely, the status of John Brown in U.S. history is an issue (because it sparks heated debate among both experts and nonexperts), but it isn't a problem per se. The overlap occurs in areas where something like HIV has aspects of a problem (the need to find a cure) and of an issue (controversies over funding for research, treatment of sufferers of the disease, and public education aimed at prevention).

It seems to me that the journal might offer these definitions for "problem" and" issue," in contrast to the ones that you identified:

problem: an intricate, unsolved question

issue: a vital or unsettled matter that is in dispute

In other words, the journal probably doesn't view "unsettledness" as a common feature of both "problems" and" issues," as your dictionary-based definitions do.

To avoid running afoul of the journal's policy, I would limit my use of "issue" to matters involving controversy and active debate. I would not use "issue" to refer to undisputed problems. In making this recommendation, I don't mean to endorse what I take to be the journal's line of thinking; I'm interested here only in suggesting a way to understand the distinction it appears to be making.

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of its guidelines is the fact that the journal evidently doesn't instruct writers not to use "problem" as a synonym for "issue."

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The journal you're submitting to appears to dislike the use of "issue" to mean "problem". In other words, they disagree with the dictionary, and think the two words should not be synonyms. (It happens: language is under constant change, and those of us who speak it all resist that change in some areas, and embrace or even cause it in other areas. A good dictionary will list all common definitions of a word, even those that are controversial.)

You have two options: you can either avoid the use of the word "issue" entirely (unless you're talking about an edition of a periodical or some such), or you can try to draw a distinction based on whether the particular point under discussion can be considered a bad thing (in which case you must use "problem") or not (in which case you're OK using "issue").

In practice, of course, it's not always easy to determine whether an open question is a bad thing or not — sometimes, you need to know the answer to the question to determine that, and then it's no longer an open question. This is where all the other synonyms of issue/problem come in useful. :)

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"Issue" has pre-empted "problem" in the vernacular of people who are in psychotherapy. Today it serves as an indicator of who is in therapy or at least a significant other of someone in therapy. ;-) I have no idea how it came into vogue to such an extent. I have been living abroad for 30 years and these changes (other examples are "I'm good" or starting every sentence with "So ...") hit me like a ton of bricks every time I return stateside.

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I agree that the word "issue" has more or less replaced "problem."

I think it is a part of the tendency to use words that sound fancy. People often say things like , "If I had known when I started, the enormity of the task, I would never have started.

We've heard someone who is obviously well educated, maybe a senior academic, use this word "enormity" and we think that we'll have a go at it. We get it wrong but what the hell; if anyone points out our sloppy use of language we just say, "Don't be a grammar Nazi; language is always changing."

Some time back, the people who devise school curriculums (curricula?) decided that you could combine history and social studies by writing "issues based curricula." And It's not a bad idea; instead of asking students to memorize lists of dates and names and battles about a subject, say the American civil war, you raise the issue, "How did the slave owning and the non slave owning states resolve their dispute (issue?) regarding slavery.

In this context "issue" means, "a matter about which there is major disagreement."

But this popular step, writing "issue based curricula," gave rise, slowly, to the misunderstanding that "disputes that need to be reconciled", that is, "issues" are "problems."

And the word "issues" is much more impressive than "problems." Hey, they use it as the cornerstone of the curriculum design. We demonstrate that we are educated by using the word "issue."

And now a perfectly good, down to earth word has been edged out by a fancy word that, although it is largely misused, carries a certain snob appeal.

So use the word "issue" only when you mean "a matter about which there is disagreement which may be either academic, practical or social." Don't use issue to mean "problem" which may be purely personal. Anyway, if you don't know the meaning of "problem" you can't be helped.

  • I don't think this transition is as universal as you make it out to be. (books.google.com/ngrams/…) Both have been increasing in use with is a problem outgrowing is an issue by about 3:1 – virmaior Feb 24 '14 at 17:10
  • Is that how you get your knowledge of word usage in the English language? By consulting reference books about phrase frequency in books? If you actually listen to people speaking, whether in conversation or on the radio, you will get a real understanding of the way that the language is actually being used. – warwick Feb 25 '14 at 0:03
  • If you prefer we can just disagree. I am a native speaker, but I check my sensibilities about my own language by looking at references. Otherwise, it seems like each of us is just blindly pontificating about our preferences. What I'm saying is that the data does not back up your usage. Maybe it is local to your region? – virmaior Feb 25 '14 at 0:17
  • I pointed out that your "data," as you call it, is irrelevant. People who write books have a much better feel for language than the rest of the population. You have not addressed this fact. – warwick Feb 25 '14 at 10:42
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Merriam-Webster online does not seem to offer the most relevant sense of problem: try instead OED s.v. problem, n., sense 3.a.:

A difficult or demanding question; (now, more usually) a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome, harmful, or wrong and needing to be overcome; a difficulty. [emphasis added]

Many dislike the trend towards using issue instead of problem for this sense, including not only your editor but also yours truly.

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Is that how you get your knowledge of word usage in the English language? By consulting reference books about phrase frequency in books? Don't you know that people who write books are a very special category? It means nothing, to quote analyses of word usage by people who write books.

If you actually listen to people speaking, whether in conversation or on the radio, you will get a real understanding of the way that the language is actually being used. And then you will know that "issue" is an example of fancy words being chosen, (wrongly) in preference to ordinary words.

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How about "Concern" as the third word?

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    Welcome to the site. Please provide a detailed explanation, preferably with references, so that everyone can learn. – choster Nov 11 '13 at 22:46
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The growing use of issue instead of using problem is evidence of creeping political correctness’s influence.

If you have a sprained ankle you do not have an issue, you have a problem.

The thought police are driven by the notion that no one’s feelings should be offended. But serious health matters are problems when you’re the injured party.

Similarly, when you contact someone, you are not necessarily reaching out, the latter another preference of the thought police. There is no natural or constitutional right not to be offended.

  • Welcome to EL&U. This is not a discussion forum, but Q&A site, and however valid may be your complaints about political correctness, they do not provide a useful answer to the original post. I encourage you to visit the site tour and review the help center for guidance. – choster May 4 '14 at 21:55

protected by tchrist May 4 '14 at 17:28

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