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Karen Virag

GETTABLE GRAMMAR: Taking issue with «issues»

Golf balls and stones on sand under water.

I think I remember the first time I heard the word issues used as a synonym for problems. I was watching a long-forgotten television sitcom, and one character commented on another’s weird behaviour by saying, “She has issues.” She overenunciated the word issues and at the same time made little scratching gestures with her index and middle fingers to indicate quotation marks. It was funny at the time. Little did I know that years later the overly frequent use of the word issues would begin to grate like a sharp-edged pebble in a boot. In the parlance of our times, I have issues with issues.

Out of curiosity I checked my 1986 Merriam Webster; it does not list problems as a synonym for issues, nor does my 1998 Canadian Oxford. Wiktionary, on the other hand, supplies a number of definitions (for example, issues can refer to publishing something, the production of progeny, points in a debate, or financial instruments). The last definition in the Wiktionary list is this: “(euphemistic).  A problem or concern, usually of a mental nature.” Beyond being a euphemism for mental problems, issues now refers to any problem, as well as to substitute for complications, subjects, matters, topics and outcomes.

Golf balls and stones on sand under water.
«Drainage issues» on a golf course

As an exercise, I looked at a few recent issues of the Edmonton Journal; the word issues appears dozens of times—one article spoke about “drainage issues” on a golf course, Alberta Premier Alison Redford is quoted as saying “There are bigger issues than the seizure of town’s firearms,” and a review of the band Alice in Chains talked about “bass player issues.”

The careful editor’s spidey sense should be all aquiver in the presence of issues. It might be the best word, but chances are it’s not, as shown by the three sentences above, in which problem would be far better. In a blog post last month, my colleague Wilf Popoff pondered why we seem reluctant to call a spade a spade and a problem a problem:

«Problem suggests something negative, which is no longer
acceptable in the modern business culture; focusing on the
negative can cut into the fees of life coaches and seminar
facilitators. It’s safer to use the word challenge, which
inspires positivism, opportunity, and repeat engagements.
And when challenge is too much of a stretch there’s the
more neutral issue

I work in educational publishing and I know firsthand whereof Wilf speaks. Teachers do not like to admit to problems. As for there being a possibility of a problem child, you’d be more likely to see a kid with a pair of long gnarly horns growing out of his head (in which case he would not have a problem; he would have a cranial challenge).

Am I alone in this? Does anyone else have a problem with not coming right out and calling a spade—er, a problem a problem?

Gettable Grammar is a monthly series of conjectures, opinions and postulates by Karen Virag.

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4 Comments on “GETTABLE GRAMMAR: Taking issue with «issues»”

  • Dwain Richardson


    What an interesting article, Karen! I never stopped to think of alternatives to the overused «issues.» This text is certainly some food for thought. Thank-you for inspring me and other writers, editors, and translators!

  • Carol Anne Peschke


    You’ve been spying on my brain! «Issues» as a euphemism for «problems» is one of the most irritating, spinless, unacceptable clots of marketing sewage ever. I edit it out at every opportunity.

  • Harsha Basu


    Hi, Karen.

    I, too, work in education publishing and don’t feel that this matter specifically relates to teachers. No one likes negative words, especially when the reference is personal. For example, it helps to use better (positive) words – if available – when you are writing an email to anyone.

    However, with education publishing in mind, I think we should be very conscious about the use of ‘issues’ in textbooks. Textbooks are mostly about facts and every child should get it right (to call a spade a spade). Also, we should not hamper a child’s vocabulary.

    I frequently use the word ‘issues’ and do have a tendency to replace other good words with it. Thanks for alerting me to this. I just replaced the word ‘issues’ with ‘matter’ in the first line!

  • Janna


    I work as a copyeditor in the disability services field, and a lot of the documents I edit have this very problem: people are described as having «mobility issues» or «mental health issues» all the time.

    I have a few friends who make use of mobility devices like wheelchairs and walkers, and I don’t think they’d appreciate that term, so I usually change the phrase as best I can – often going with the longer, but more accurate, «difficulties with mobilty.»

    As for the other, I have ADHD and am offended by the use of «mental health issues» (or «mental issues») to describe my disorder, so I always change that one to «mental disorders» or «mental conditions.» These terms are more accurate and more respectful.

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