The Grammarphobia Blog

A tricky situation

Q: I’m a newspaper reporter who’s done a story that a copy editor wants to change. I’ve written that a particular financial relationship is tricky, meaning it’s complicated and requires caution, and the editor wants to change “tricky” to “problematic.” I’ve objected, but I’m not getting anywhere. I have no idea where to turn and I thought you might be able to help me out.

A: I don’t know how much help I can be, but here’s my take on the situation.

“Problematic” isn’t an exact synonym for “tricky,” so they’re not interchangeable. Something that’s “problematic” poses a problem or a difficulty. But something that’s “tricky” requires caution or skill.

Whether the substitution is justified depends on the context. If “tricky” fits exactly, and if switching to “problematic” would change the meaning, then I’d stick with the original wording. From what you’ve said, I’d go with “tricky.”

If I had to guess, I’d say the copy editor is troubled by “tricky” because it has another meaning (given to trickery). But I think your intended meaning is quite clear and unlikely to be misunderstood by newspaper readers.

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