I have an issue with issue—with the word, that is. It pops up everywhere, meaning everything and meaning nothing. One hears of a pitcher who has rotator-cuff issues, of a landlord who has issues with pets in his buildings, of a bill up before Congress that poses jurisdictional issues. A weather reporter informs me that dressing warmly in a snowstorm is the main issue. The issue over reinstating the draft is whether soldiers serving only two years can be of serious military use. Can a word having so many different meanings, capable of being plugged into so many various contexts, finally have any useful meaning whatsoever? That, you might say, is the issue, though if you did you would be misusing the word.
I first became aware of the proper use of the word issue sometime in the late 1960s. I was a senior editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica, sitting in lengthy, often goofy meetings presided over by Mortimer Adler, who was redesigning—and not at all by the way destroying—the old Britannica, turning it from the world’s best straightforward reference work into a Rube Goldberg device of monstrous complexity. Mortimer was many things—clown, tyrant, force of nature—but he could also chop logic finer than they chopped liver at the old Ratner’s Delicatessen on Second Avenue. In one of these meetings someone described an item up for discussion as an issue. Mortimer, his always-racing mind causing him to stammer, shot back: “That’s not an is-is-issue. It’s not even a qu-question. It’s a problem. The difference is a problem calls for a solution, a question for an answer, and an issue, an issue is something in the fl-fl-flux of con-controversy. Got it?”
As the only useful thing I ever learned from Mortimer, I not only got it, but I have never forgot it. Being in the flux of controversy, an issue doesn’t allow for an easily settled conclusion, even though one might have strong opinions about it. Whether the federal government should fund abortions for the poor is an issue, at least if one is not morally opposed to abortion. Whether there should be a Nobel Prize for the dubious science of economics is an issue. Whether the news can be presented over television in a bipartisan way and still gain high viewer ratings is an issue.
The crucial distinction is among question, problem, and issue. Whether Jay Cutler will start at quarterback next year for the Chicago Bears is a question. Whether the team can afford to cut him loose and forfeit the cost of his enormous salary is a problem. Whether they ought to keep him at all is an issue.
“ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
“ ‘The question is,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a scornful tone, ‘when I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ ”
The problem (not the question or the issue) is that, according to the Dumptian school of language, which just now is dominant in the world, fairly soon all words will mean everything, and no word will mean anything—at least fewer and fewer of them will mean anything with the precision required to get a purchase on reality. Let one word after another lose its meaning, its common usage, its precision, and soon everyone becomes his own Tower of Babel.
Dictionaries, those cowardly institutions, prefer to describe the way people use words instead of setting out the core meaning of those words. Here and in England dictionaries increasingly define issue as something that people are thinking or talking about—so that an issue becomes a hot topic, little more. People meanwhile pick up the new meanings of words with cheerful readiness. Something pleases them about saying that they have foot issues rather than trouble with their feet; issues somehow seem more elevated than troubles. A happy vagueness resides in the loose use of the word issue. Remarking that one has issues with one’s children is much to be preferred to ranting about one’s kids’ unreasonableness, the result, doubtless, of one’s having spoiled them in the first place. Better to have issues with children than to have, what is more likely, wretched children.
Need anyone but a proud pedant give a rat’s rump about keeping in mind the distinction among a question, a problem, and an issue? The likelihood of convincing many people of the importance of doing so is less than that of the return of Prohibition and vaudeville on the same weekend. The only argument I can think to mount, apart from that of a taste for precision in language, is based on political correctness. Misuse the word issue and you are likely to offend members of a small but touchy minority group, some would call them an endangered species—I refer, of course, to the educated.