Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Issues and Problems

Perhaps you have noticed how, in American English at least, ‘issue’ is coming to supplant ‘problem.’ Being a conservative, I don’t confuse change with improvement. And being a linguistic conservative, I am none too pleased with this recent development. So I would like to be able to say that a mistake is being made, or a distinction is being obliterated, by those who use ‘issue’ when, not long ago, one would have used ‘problem.’ I would like to say what I say to those who confuse ‘infer’ and ‘imply,’ namely, that there is an extralinguistic distinction that their linguistic confusion renders invisible. In the case of ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ it is the distinction between a subjective mental process and an objective relation between propositions.

Trouble is, I am having a hard time finding any mistake of a logical or conceptual nature such as would justify my displeasure. Are ‘issue’ and ‘problem’ interchangeable? Am I just a cranky curmudgeon opposed to change as such? Let’s consider some examples.

No one is about to start referring to chess problems and math problems as chess and math issues. At least I hope not. But what if they did? Would I have a principled reason to object? If you run out of gas in the middle of nowhere, then you’ve got a problem. And if your wife is about to give birth when you run out of gas, then you really have a problem. The use of ‘issue’ here offends my linguistic sensibilities, but what exactly is wrong with it? More examples:

There is an issue with the starter solenoid.

You got an issue with that, buddy?

There are serious issues with the formatting of the March issue of Chess Life.

Thank you Carmelita, for putting me on your blogroll. Carmelita: No issue!

One issue that arises for a married couple is whether or not to have children. But if the man is impotent, then that is a problem. It is even more of a problem if the two find each other physically repellent.

In the sentence, ‘He died without issue,’ one cannot substitute ‘problem’ for ‘issue’ salva significatione. But that is not the relevant use of ‘issue.’ We certainly don't want to make an issue, or a problem, out of that use of 'issue.'

I end with two questions. First, is there any distinction that we need to observe when we use ‘problem’ and ‘issue’? Second, why is ‘issue’ coming to supplant ‘problem’? Is it just because people are suggestible lemmings rather than the independent thinkers and speakers that they ought to be?

Can we blame this one on liberals too?