I can’t pinpoint when issue reared its euphemistic head and took the place of problem or difficulty in the general parlance, but the usage is now of epidemic proportion. The media are replete with sidebars about anger issues and relationship issues and weight issues. Students’ excuses for late homework run the gamut from parking issues to childcare issues to domestic violence issues. My work email has recently included a message from the physical plant about compressor issues and from the security director about weather issues.
Yes, I know that language is living, and I am enough of a linguistic Darwinist to accept (reluctantly) that it evolves. Regrettably, I have just (again) looked up the word on my most prized iPhone app–the American Heritage Dictionary, 5th edition, for which I waited eagerly and then joyfully spent $24.99. In the last ten years, the usage panel has slipped and slid with the general populace to at least “lukewarm acceptance” by the majority of such barbarisms as “I don’t want to hire someone who has issues with carrying out orders.” However, by 2013, the panel still recommended using more precise words for clarity.
My position is firmly with the current minority, so I have spilled an inordinate amount of red ink writing, “Issue does not mean problem.” My reluctance to accept this usage results from two disparate but persuasive causes.
The first is what must be the origin of this insidious semantic slippage: If we never call anything a problem, then q.e.d., there must be no problems! And when problems disappear (because we have no such word), so do both the need and the responsibility to solve them. “Anger issues” are not punished, but discussed and cajoled and patted on the head. If behavior is never wrong, it never needs to be made right. Remedial classes became “developmental studies” because the need for a remedy implies the existence of a deficiency. It has become somehow unacceptable to suggest–ever–that an answer is actually wrong.
Last semester, I was trying to convince my students that you is a second-person pronoun that does not and cannot mean people in general. I wrote on the board, “In China, you are allowed to have only one child.” [Yes, I realize that the policy even by then had changed; we were talking about grammar, not world politics.] One student wanted to correct the sentence by substituting they for you. I told him he was on the right track, but he couldn’t use they because it had no antecedent. He insisted several times that he was right, and I finally told him that there was no use arguing a point of grammar with me. He went straight to my supervisor and complained that I had not respected his opinion in the discussion. Another student complained that I had written on one of his assignments, “I’m not sure you understand the nature of a thesis statement.” Even in instructional settings, the issue fallout is clear.
I thought that I had a firm grasp of this problem–just a matter of black and white versus gray. It seemed easy enough to insist that my students be more precise when they identify circumstances as problematic or difficult.
Then I encountered the other side of the issue issue: Students no longer understand the plain meaning of the term. One of the papers I assign in my writing-across-the-curriculum class is a literature review in the social sciences. We look at other literature reviews and discuss why and how they are written–as part of the “scholarly conversation” among those in a particular field of study. Then I ask the students to find ten articles on their topics and identify at least four issues they discuss. Almost unanimously, they identify problems instead of issues. I try to illustrate the concept by referring to issues in the current election cycle or issues in a dinner-table conversation. I try to explain that these are topics of discussion on which people can agree or disagree. A few understand.
The rest? Well, it would seem they have issues.