Word Choice – Issue Versus Problem

Gerald’s question: “Can you give a couple of examples to distinguish between the words ‘issue’ and ‘problem’? When I am asked my opinion on a bank’s service, can I reply, ‘There have not been any issues with this bank in handling our export documents.’ Or can I simply reply ‘I have never had any problems with this bank in … ’?”

BizWritingTip response: There is a trend today to use these two words interchangeably. No one wants to speak of problems anymore. We call them issues and tell ourselves we are being politically correct. But this can cause confusion.

An “issue” is a topic. It can cause personal annoyance and may even have the potential to cause harm. However, at this stage the impact is slight. When you have an issue, you generally can come up with a solution yourself.

Examples (correct)
There are several issues we should discuss at the meeting. (There are several topics we should discuss.)
I had some issues with the new employee after the first week. (There were some concerns, but they could be easily resolved.)

On occasion, an issue may turn into a problem. A problem is negative. It needs to be solved. Problems usually require the advice and assistance of others.

Examples
The speaker had some issues with the microphone so it was difficult to hear the entire presentation. (Incorrect — The microphone needed to be fixed or replaced.)
The speaker had some problems with the microphone so it was difficult to hear the entire presentation. (This is correct.)
I have some problems with the new employee. (This is now serious. Resolution is required.)

You could write, “There have not been any issues with this bank in handling our export documents.” This would imply there have not even been any minor irritations.

Or you could write, “There have not been any problems with this bank.” This would imply although there may have been some minor irritations, there is no need to work on a resolution.

Although choosing the right word may be an issue, choosing the wrong one may be a problem if the reader gets the wrong message.

 

 

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