Having a problem with ‘issues’

Whether it’s a conversation overheard on the bus, a radio news interview, or a business website, the chances are that ‘issues’ soon arise. The term is universal and can’t be avoided.

What’s the problem?

Well catch-all terms have their uses; and in this case at least one of those makes it all too easy for us to lapse into lazy and loose language.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists eight separate definitions for ‘issue’. These have spawned as many additional variations. Only a few of this progeny are obsolete (and died without issue …).

The top two definitions are:

1. a vital, unsettled matter (as in ‘economic issues’)

2. a concern or problem (‘I have issues with your behaviour’)


This is the nub. That second usage is taking over as a euphemistic cover for anything negative – a problem, difficulty, dispute, illness, failure, etc.

“Sorry, I missed your message. I’m having issues with my phone.” Really? Maybe it’s smarter than you…

There are times when we need to be diplomatic, to soften the blow. But all too frequently people write ‘issues’ when they mean and could easily say ‘problems’ or ‘difficulties’ (or ‘challenges’ if we want to be politely correct).

To the point

Even B2B websites are awash with ‘issues’.

But think, if you’re describing how you help clients, which sounds more to the point?

“We resolved their issues.” Or. “We fixed their problems.”

If you’re a psychiatrist, go with ‘issues’. But in most contexts, it’s better to call a spade a spade. (And in either case, describe the problem if you can, so it’s real and credible to your reader.)

So, take the credit for problem-solving where it’s due.

Pause before this over-used term issues from your mouth or keyboard, and ask yourself if you can be more precise. There may be vital issues (clarity, accuracy, impact) at stake. 

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