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Tackling More Tricky Word Choices: Issue vs. Problem
Several of our articles to start the year have focused on tricky word
choices, ones that may throw us off simply because we might not be aware of
or pay attention to their subtleties and differences.
Another pair of tricky, freely swapped words is issue and problem. Most often, we’ll use issue to mean problem, not realizing its main definition intends to convey
something else. Let’s take a closer look at these words.
The primary meaning of issue is “a point or matter of
discussion, debate, or dispute between two or more parties.” Other
relevant definitions include “a matter of public concern” and
“a misgiving, objection, or complaint.”
Problem, on the other hand, communicates “a question raised for inquiry,
consideration, or solution,” “an intricate unsettled
question,” “a source of perplexity, distress, or
vexation,” and “difficulty in understanding or
Some dictionaries have helped blur the distinction by allowing the
concept of problem to trickle into definitions of issue. Within dictionary entries, appearances of problem under meanings of issue range from near the
top to much farther down.
For example, the online American Heritage Dictionary
introduces problem in its second definition of issue, immediately following the first and more weighted one. Conversely, the online Oxford English Dictionary
does not mention problem as related with issue until
the sixteenth definition.
alludes to problem in definition six. Dictionary.com does not
introduce the idea of problem at all.
So what, then, do careful writers do when common usage and even
dictionaries muddy our mission for precision? We recommend an even greater
focus on using issue and problem as we’ve
distinguished them here. This will help reinforce the exactness English
We acknowledge that issue and problem will still be
exchanged in spoken communication. At the same time, now that we better
understand the difference, we can lead more-accurate usage by keeping their
intended primary meanings within our own speech.
View this article on our website
Choose either issue or problem as it fits by its main
definition in each sentence.
1) I think we have a serious (issue / problem) with the balance sheet.
The numbers are way off.
2) Do you think he has (an issue / a problem) with his focus during
3) The main (issue / problem) here is whether we should allow the empty
twenty acres west of Route 45 to be rezoned for commercial use.
4) The council will soon discuss the (issue / problem) of a proposed
hike in water rates.
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More fun for our lexophiles:
• Jokes about German sausage are the wurst.
• I know a guy who's addicted to brake fluid, but he says he can stop any time.
• I stayed up all night to see where the sun went, then it dawned on me.
• When chemists die, they barium.
• I'm reading a book about anti-gravity. I just can't put it down.
Pop Quiz Answers
1) I think we have a serious (issue / problem) with
the balance sheet. The numbers are way off.
2) Do you think he has (an issue / a problem) with his
focus during meetings?
3) The main (issue / problem) here is whether we
should allow the empty twenty acres west of Route 45 to be rezoned for
4) The council will soon discuss the (issue / problem)
of a proposed hike in water rates.
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Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.