April 4, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Issues or problems & personification

Posted in colloquialism, euphemism, personification at 6:46 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Issues or problems

A reader writes:

Have you discussed the use of the word “issues” as a synonym for “problems.”  Recently encountered in a student paper:  “What if the physician is going through marital issues?”

I know that this is a widespread colloquial usage, but is it accepted usage for formal writing?  I have serious issues with this.

The reader is correct: although widely used in this manner, using ‘issues’ as a synonym for ‘problem’ or ‘problems’ is a colloquialism. And, as you know, we should refrain from using this kind of language in our formal, academic writing. The student to whom the reader referred, should not have used ‘ marital issues’ when he or she really meant ‘marital problems.’

Let me step back a bit and review what a colloquialism is. A colloquialism is a form of casual or informal speech that is often used when speaking. It is usually related to a specific geographic region, but not always. A classic example of a Pittsburgh colloquialism is ‘red up’ which means ‘clean up’ or ‘tidy up.’ While used throughout Western Pennsylvania, listeners or readers elsewhere would be bemused by the expression.

In this case, using ‘issues’ as a synonym for ‘problem’  is also a euphemism, an inoffensive or vague word used to replace a word that may have negative connotations or be considered offensive. In the reader’s example, the use of ‘issues’ allows the writer to avoid the term, ‘problems’ which, by definition, has negative connotations. Another example of an euphemism is the use of ‘passed away’ instead of ‘died.’

But back to ‘issues’ and ‘problems.’ Their use as synonyms is ubiquitous. This came home to me the very day that the reader sent the above email. I had been sending an email to Pitt’s Women in Science mailing list, referring to the dearth of women in positions of leadership in hospitals. I copied the article but neglected to copy the title. No problem, I remembered it, and I proceeded to send out an article called, ‘Why do we still have women problems?’ Later on, I wanted to check something in the article and went back to it. I found the title of the article really was ‘Why do we still have women issues?’ I had automatically and unconsciously translated this euphemism to what I figured the writer of the article meant. Hmmm.

Some euphemisms can appropriately be used in formal writing. For instance, ‘flight attendant’ was a euphemism for ‘stewardess,’ which was considered sexist and insulting, but it is the accepted and commonly used term these days.

But the same does not hold true for colloquialisms which should be used only in conversations and the most casual forms of writing.

Tip 2: Personification

A reader writes:

Do you have a position on academic writing that personifies a non-living entity?  I just received the sentence, “UPMC understands the importance of patient satisfaction.”  Of course, “UPMC” can’t understand but it does make us sound very friendly. As editor, would you require a change to “At UPMC, we understand the importance of patient satisfaction.”? Many thanks for your valuable coaching,

UPMC is, of course, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. And as the reader notes, of course, the medical center cannot understand anything. This type of personification is very common in advertising and marketing as well as in art and literature. In this case, UPMC marketing people want customers to have warm and fuzzy feelings about the medical center, and they try to do this by giving an inanimate object (UPMC) human characteristics (understanding).

Because we are talking about its use in advertising, I have no objection to its use although the marketing people risk consumer backlash as the way personification is used here could be construed as somewhat patronizing and insulting.  I think potential patients know that UPMC is not their kindly uncle. I think the reader’s proposed change is a much stronger way of putting this, and it, in no way, belittles the consumer’s intelligence.

Should it be used in scientific writing? Not as a rule. And I would never use personification in the methods or results sections which should only include the facts. However, I can see a talented writer using personification successfully in an introduction or conclusions section of a scientific paper. Note that I said, ‘talented writer.’ While the spare use of personification could enliven a discussion, it could, if not used carefully and correctly, make the writer seem foolish and could limit publication possibilities. As a rule, I would recommend against it.

Journals can be formidable judges. Be spare and beware.


  1. Warsaw Will said,

    My problem is not the use of the word issues in the example “What if the physician is going through marital issues?”, but with the choice of verb. Surely, in the colloquial use, you “have issues”, you don’t “go through issues” (just as you don’t “go through problems”).

    However, I would suggest that “issues” in this sense has a very specific meaning which is not always synonymous with problems. For example, saying somebody has “commitment issues” is rather more expressive than saying they have “commitment problems”, in my opinion. It suggests something in the past which has led to these problems. Everyone understands the title of the Offspring’s song “She’s got issues” – “She’s got problems” just wouldn’t be the same.

    • dlseltzer said,

      I agree with all of your comments.

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