Guest blog by Dr. Lynn B. Spees, MD


This week’s blog is an article written by Dr. Lynn B. Spees, MD of Hickory, NC.  The article was shared with me by a friend who knows I write for a living and I found it to be spot on! If you are writing grants, creating messaging for your organization, or presenting, this is a relevant and timely article. Thank you, Dr. Spees, for allowing us to share.
– Mandy

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.

Chinese Proverb

I accept that speakers with weak vocabularies will use this word rather than using a more precise word.  It puzzles me why people with great vocabularies resort to using this cliché word so frequently.  My essay offers 61 better choices.

The Everglades has Burmese pythons, the South has kudzu, The Great Lakes have the zebra mussel, the whole nation has starlings. These species have invaded and wreaked havoc with the natural environment.  The English language has its own invasive species, the worst of which is the word “issues”.  Only through thoughtful efforts can it be controlled before it takes over an entire linguistic ecosystem.

I am vigorously trying to reduce the misuse of the word “issues”. To this end, I have composed an essay, which I hope you will read for your entertainment and enlightenment.

The lot behind my house has kudzu growing in it. If left alone, it would take over, covering the ground and smothering every bush and tree! I see the same thing happening with the word “issues”. Like invasive kudzu, “issues” creeps in and threatens to wipe out more meaningful and appropriate words. Somewhere, kudzu has a suitable niche; likewise, “issues” has a few rightful uses in the language.

If you are tempted to throw “issues” mindlessly into conversation, pick instead one of the following:

problems, angle, bind, cause, challenges, complaints, concerns, conflict, confusion, consideration, controversies, dangers, defects, difficulties, dilemmas, disabilities, disagreements, discord, diseases, disorders, dissension, doubts, factors, failures, glitches, hurdles, illnesses, impediment, insecurity, materials, matters, misgivings, needs, niche, objections, obstacles, opposition, pains, point, quandary, questions, relationships, reservations, risks, solution, stand-off, stresses, troubles, violation, weaknesses, weapon, and woes. (These 52, along with the 9 legitimate dictionary definitions, add up to 61!)

I have heard “issues” substituted for every one of the words in the list. The richness of our language is diminished every time “issues” replaces a more descriptive word. I strongly concur with this assertion from another essay on “issues”:

The i-word is a gangrene spreading across political, technical, and managerial discourse.

Source: Government Computing October 2005

Mark Twain nailed the problem with this pointed quip: “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.”

“Issues”, as commonly used in recent years, is a fuzzy word that reflects fuzzy thinking. It has no substance. It is the linguistic equivalent of marshmallow fluff, with the same nutritional value to the brain. Word-watcher Richard Lederer calls this usage “fadspeak”, and says “It’s so much easier not to think, isn’t it?” When you use “issues” in its fadspeak role, you are not being clear, accurate, or witty.

“Issues” can be a euphemism, though not to avoid offending, but to deceive. Recently I encountered a repairman who sprinkled his conversation with “issues”. Questioned, he replied that it was part of the corporate culture where he used to work.  The company never admitted its products had any problems.  They had only “issues”. When Microsoft sends out its Windows patches, many of them are designed to fix “security issues”. Obviously, Windows has no problems!

If you still need an example, here is one of the most egregious: A radio reporter warned listeners of
“traffic issues”. I contend that “traffic issues” are topics for discussion at city planning meetings. To top that, a woman offered on the internet a “pet feeder with issues”.  The kudzu is winning!

If you are not yet convinced, try deciphering this linguistic atrocity: At the end of the day*, the issues* came down to issues* to settle, issues* to correct, and issues* to overcome, and some had issues* about how the whole group would be impacted*. They decided to issue an explanation in the next issue of the newspaper. [For a clearer statement, substitute for the * words, in order: finally, problems, disagreements, failures, obstacles, doubts, affected.]

Before you utter your next “issues,” ask yourself “Do I really want to sow a linguistic kudzu seed?”

Yours for clearer communication,
Lynn B. Spees, MD | Hickory, NC