Issues vs. Problems

By Maeve Maddox

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The word issue has been used with various meanings since the Middle Ages. For most of that time, English speakers have talked about issues, but rarely have they had issues.

Issue derives from classical Latin exitus: “to go out.”

The noun issue can refer to the action of flowing out, as in the medical sense of “a discharge of blood or other matter from the body”:

Three days afterward there was an issue of pus through this opening.

An issue can be an exit, a place where something comes out:

The identity of its waters is shown by the re-appearance of light bodies at its issue that have been thrown into it above the place where it enters the mountains.

As a verb, issue means, “to exit” or “come out of”:

How to explain these expressions of frustration, contempt and downright hatred heard from audiences issuing from the theatre?

When Theseus was most enraged by his conviction that his wife had betrayed him, a deep, subliminal rumble would issue from beneath the auditorium, making the whole theatre shake.

As a noun, issue can mean children:

This amendment proved academic, as the abdicated King Edward VIII died without issue in 1972.

Some matter or question that is under discussion or in question is an issue:

The issue under discussion was not about victims or about pity, but rather about challenging oppression and discrimination.

The public is concerned with issues of all kinds:

The Five Main Issues Facing Modern Feminism
Juvenile Delinquency: Current Issues, Best Practices, and Promising Approaches

The issue of bullying in schools
Why Campaign Finance Reform Is the First Issue That We Must Address

Issues are topics that are viewed differently by different people.

Problems are major and minor difficulties that must be overcome.

Problems are not controversial in the way that issues are. For example, the adoption of the Common Core Standards is an issue. Poor television reception is a problem.

Since the mid-1980s, the noun issue has been co-opted by many speakers as a word for what used to be referred to as a problem.

problem: a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome, harmful, or wrong and needing to be overcome; a difficulty.

Here are some examples that use issue where the word problem would be sufficient:

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Treating Foster Children for Psychological Issues

I can sympathize with people who have an issue with dogs. 

If you suspect that you need more help with your reception issues, just have a chat with your local antenna specialist.

Hairballs are a common issue with cats.

Is your Apple computer having issues playing sound from the built-in speakers?

I’ve noticed that people with contacts don’t have as much of an issue with onions.

Perhaps some speakers feel that issue sounds grander or more scientific than problem.

To be sure, there is some overlap between issues and problems. Climate change, for example, is both an issue and a problem. But when it comes to controlling hairballs and peeling onions, problem will suffice.

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10 Responses to “Issues vs. Problems”

  • Stephen Campbell

    The substitution of “issue” for “problem” is an example of corporate-speak. “Issue” sounds gentler and less embarrassing than “problem.” When a large financial institution has a data security breach and exposes customers’ sensitive information, their PR department would rather say they have security issues than security problems. It’s a weasel-word.

  • Andrew K.

    The co-opting of “issue” to equal “problem” has given rise to one of my favorite comebacks: “He/she doesn’t have issues, he/she has subscriptions.”

  • Benjamin

    This issue always makes me recall my high school Spanish teacher, who, in jest, would say, “You’ve got so many problems, you got issues.” Since then, I’ve often used “issue” in the sense of a problem compounded by other problems.

  • John

    Climate change is definitely an issue. Whether it is a problem or not is open to question.

  • Brendan

    The use of “issues” grew, in my opinion, when technology companies (and others) decided that they didn’t want to have problems so they stopped referring to “problems” and began to refer to “issues”. Public relations jargon. Sounds like less of a difficulty. This tendency has developed so that we now hear of “challenges” more than we hear of “problems”, “difficulties” or even “issues”.

  • ApK

    I’m with Brendan. It’s no secret that business would prefer words that keep clients, and other other interested party who’s heart or mind you’d like to keep, in a positive mindset, though I don’t know that technology companies deserve any special call-out.

  • ApK

    [Let’s try typing that again.]
    I’m with Brendan. It’s no secret that businesses would prefer words that keep clients, and any other interested parties who’s hearts or minds you’d like to win, in a positive mindset. Though I don’t know that technology companies deserve any special call-out.

  • Connie

    The DMV issues driver licenses, though rarely does it do so without making it a problem. 🙂

  • Martin Smith

    I’ve been out of Britain since the 80s and it drives me round the bend to hear all these Americanisms, like “issues” instead of “problems”. I always say if you can substitute the word “question” for “issue” then it’s right, if not it’s a “problem.” I know language changes, but do the Brits have to take over Amercian English lock stock and barrel? Strikes me as being a sign of poor national character.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Many of the younger speakers and writers are so “brain-dead” that they do not even acknowledge it when they are corrected about misusing “issue” for “problem”.
    I have tried telling them, “What I am telling you (concerning my telephone service, for example) is not an ‘issue” but rather it is a ‘problem”. Do not insult me by downgrading it to a mere ‘issue’.”

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