The Grammarphobia Blog

Taking issue with us

Q: I am disappointed. In discussing the use of “up” and “down” in England, you noted that you had already “touched on this issue.” Perhaps you meant: “touched on this subject.” I have difficulty understanding why “issue” has become the preferred alternative to “problem,” “concern,” “subject,” etc. It is sad to see you following this trend.

A: We’re sorry you were disappointed by that wording in our posting last May about “up” and “down,” but we beg to disagree.

The noun “issue” has been used to refer to a problem, concern, subject, and so on for nearly two centuries, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s how the OED defines this sense of the word: “Of a matter or question: In dispute; under discussion; in question.”

We checked six standard dictionaries in the US and the UK, and all but one of them say “issue” can be used to mean a subject of discussion.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, begins its definition with this sense of the word: “A point or matter of discussion, debate, or dispute: What legal and moral issues should we consider?”

And the Cambridge Dictionaries Online starts its definition this way: “a subject or problem which people are thinking and talking about: environmental/ethical/personal issues.”

The only exception (and not much of one) is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which insists that the subject must be vital, unsettled, or in dispute.

A more controversial issue concerning “issue” is the use of the noun to mean a problem (as in “I have an issue with that”). We discussed this on the blog a couple of years ago.

In our earlier posting, we described the many meanings that “issue” has had since it entered English in the 1300s as a verb and a noun.

All of these senses arise more or less out of the word’s early meanings of egress, outflow, exit, discharge, or output.

The “issue,” in other words, is what comes out, whether from a drain pipe, the human body, a magazine publisher, a stressful situation, or a problematic legal settlement.

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