Danny Bernstein, author of the upcoming DuPont Forest: A History, emailed me a couple of months ago to talk about word usage.

She specifically wanted to talk about why people use words incorrectly.

She shared the example of issue versus problem. These two words are used almost interchangeably these days, but they don’t really mean the same thing. According to Merriam Webster, an issue is “a vital or unsettled matter” and “is in dispute between two or more parties.”

A problem, according to MW, is “a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation” or is a “difficulty in understanding or accepting.”

MW also says an issue can be a problem, but based on the definitions, a problem is not an issue. To sum things up, issues have sides to be debated. Problems are difficulties to be figured out.

So why do people use issue when what they really mean is problem? This led me down an intersting research path about word usage that I’m going to write about in a three-part series.

Why do we confuse words and conflate their meanings?

Chicago Manual of Style says, “Yet there seems to be an irresistible law of language that two words so similar in sound will inevitably be confused by otherwise literate users of language—a type of mistake called catachresis.”

This makes sense given examples, such as lay/lie, who/whom, and sit/set, words that sound similar and have related (not synonymous) meanings.

Language is as much about listening and speaking as it is reading and writing. Throw dialects into the mix, and add in (sometimes) complicated usage rules involving direct objects, and it’s no wonder these words are confused.

But what about issue and problem? Or jealousy and envy? Or race and ethnicity? Or even, may versus might? These words have related (not synonymous) meanings, sure, but they don’t sound alike. So why are they used incorrectly?

I don’t know.

The Thesaurus

I have an idea though. When I write, I want to choose the best words for my manuscript. I also want to make sure that I’m not repeating myself. Enter the thesaurus, a handy tool that gives me a variety of words with similar meanings. Similar meanings. Not the same meanings. This is how the confusion begins.

Look up issue in a thesaurus, and problem is listed as a synonym. Look up problem, and issue is listed as a synonym.

Boom—now my brain is being trained to think that all the words listed in a thesaurus entry mean the same thing.

This happens repeatedly, with multiple people interchanging issue and problem, and over time, a word’s usage changes.

Language changes.

Blame it on the thesaurus.

Not really, of course. The thesaurus is an important writing tool. So is your brain. If you’re looking to replace a word in your manuscript, make sure you’re choosing the best word given the context you’re writing in.

Copyright Ayers Edits 2021