linguistics and lexicography Love English

More issues around ‘issues’

Inspired by Gill Francis’s recent post on the new(ish) use of the preposition around, I thought I would take a look at the other half of this construction – the word ‘issues’, and the changes it has undergone in recent years. It soon becomes clear that ‘issues’ is not just the plural of ‘issue’, but encodes a distinct meaning of its own. How else to explain sentences like these?

The second fellow, a 15-year-old lad, who shall remain nameless, clearly had issues.
A supplement to support bladder control and health in dogs, especially those with incontinence issues.
Has anyone had issues using the Apple Wireless Mouse? The movement on mine is decidedly odd and jerky.

This is a nice example of ‘specialization’ (discussed here before by Stan), which is one of the mechanisms by which a word can acquire new meanings. As Stan pointed out, specialization is the process whereby ‘a word’s field of reference contracts’. Compare for example:

I had to run to catch the bus (=the general sense of the verb)
She runs/She goes running several times a week (=a related but more specialized use)

Nice recent examples of this are the way that words such as friend, follower, and like are used in social media: the new meanings aren’t radically different from the older ones, but they are nevertheless distinct and have a narrower range of reference.

A number of questions come to mind. First, how do we know that the use of ‘issues’ highlighted in Gill’s post really constitutes a distinct meaning? The most reliable and scientific way of identifying word meanings is to examine the context, and by context, we mean a combination of grammatical, collocational, and text-type features. In terms of its grammatical behaviour, the first clue is that the word is almost always plural in this use: corpus data shows that in the combination ‘issue (noun)+around’, only about 4% of instances have the noun in the singular. Next, it often occurs with have (We all have issues, but the older we get the more there seem to be), or with, or with another noun premodifying it (remember the dogs ‘with incontinence issues’). And those nouns are far from random, which is where collocation comes in. Our corpus has over 9000 instances of ‘noun+issues’, and the expression mental health issues makes up no fewer than 1500 of these. Other frequent collocates include mobility, equality, diversity, disability, gender, and the ever-popular health and safety.

We might speculate that ‘issues’ in this sense started life as a sort of avoidance strategy – a slightly indirect way of discussing things that some people may feel uncomfortable talking about: disability, discrimination, obesity, and so on. Thus, for example, the corpus includes the ‘mission statement’ of a public body whose goal is: ‘Promoting a society of equal access, despite mobility or sensory impairment, learning disability or mental health issues.’ There were several comments on the earlier post along the lines ‘I’m not a great fan of this usage’, and perhaps its unpopularity reflects a feeling that there is something evasive about it. That, and the suspicion we tend to have towards uses which have the air of being ‘fashionable’, where everyone in a particular line of work jumps on the bandwagon and uses the same vocabulary.

This leads to a second question: is it really new? A comparison with texts in the  British National Corpus suggests that it was only just beginning to appear when this corpus was put together 20 years ago. The BNC includes a mere 16 instances of issues around (compared with well over 3000 in our current corpus), and none at all of ‘have issues’ on its own, as in the first example shown above.

So what does ‘issues’ mean when used like this? If the primary meaning of issue is something like a subject for discussion or a problem that needs to be tackled, its plural use looks deliberately vague, and may be driven by a desire to not identify something as a problem. A person may be disabled and may have trouble getting around, but if you say there are some disability and mobility issues, this presents the situation in a more positive light. But there are signs that its use is beginning to broaden out. We now quite often see it used with a gerund, as another way of saying ‘have difficulty doing something’:

I had issues getting hold of some good oil.
Since that event, they have had issues duplicating that success.

In other cases, it seems to refer to an argument or point of disagreement:

The Art director and I have issues. He thinks I’m not taking my job seriously and I think he’s an idiot.

Most interestingly, we’re starting to see uses that don’t refer to people at all:

My girlfriend’s car felt fine, the van felt sluggish, but my own car has issues.
He took us up to the fifth floor, where he had found us a room. The room was not bad, but it clearly had issues.

Where it will go next is anybody’s guess!

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Michael Rundell


  • I’m curious: have you compared results from different dialectical corpora? It’s funny that the BNC shows early hits from around 20 yrs ago. In the mid-90s, as an AmE lexi expat back home on holiday in SF, I was struck by how frequently my US lawyer friend used the phrase “have issues” as a euphemism for “have problems”. In the old BNC instances where “have issues” collocate with “around”, what dialect (or dialectical exposure) do the speakers have? I used to swap “round” for “around” when in the UK to sound less AmE; the fact “around” is used piques my interest. You also mentioned how “like” and “follower” usage is shifting due to web contexts. Makes me wonder if cross-dialectical exposure, particularly via multinational media and web sources, is having any influence on the expanded usage of “have issues” too? I’m noticing that as more British programs get absorbed into American remakes and the more people Tweet and post and blog and Skype without borders, the more my colleagues back here in the US understand my occasional slips into BrE colloquialisms. Fascinating stuff. Had to comment and ask.

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