This week, we answer a question from Noël from France. He writes,
“Can you explain the difference between matter, problem and issue? In English lessons these three words come often in the conversation and I am never sure which I have to use. Thank you in advance for the explanation and thank you very much for the daily news and lessons.” -- Noël, France.
As a learner of English you probably wonder: Why does the language have so many words with similar meanings? One reason is that some words are more common in formal or official settings than others. Let me start with “problem,” the least formal of the words that you asked about.
“Problem” is a word that you can use in many different situations. A problem is a difficulty to overcome or a question to solve. We may say, for example:
The poor economy has caused social problems.
Or you could ask somebody this question if they look unhappy:
What’s the problem?
There are many words that are close in meaning to problem, such as trouble or challenge.
A more formal word that sometimes has the same meaning as problem is “issue.” It can mean a topic or subject. At meetings, “issue” is used for an important problem that people debate or talk about. You may hear political candidates use this word as in this example:
My opponent does not make clear statements on the issues.
We can also use “issue” to talk about things that a large number of people care about. For example:
Ocean scientists spoke on the environmental issue of plastic pollution.
“Matter” is a more formal way of saying topic or material. The word “matter” can have a more neutral or a positive meaning than problem or issue, as in:
We will discuss the matter of awards in the next meeting.
However, “matter” is also an informal way of saying “problem” when we ask a question like:
What’s the matter?
How formal is the situation?
When you are trying to decide which of the three words to use, ask yourself: How formal is this situation? If it is informal, then use the word “problem.” When talking about a political subject or a debate topic, you may use the word “issue.” If the situation is more formal or a legal discussion, or you are talking about something that is not a problem, use the word “matter.”
And that is Ask a Teacher for this week.
What question do you have about English? Send us an email at email@example.com.
I’m Jill Robbins.
Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
challenge – n. a difficult task or problem; something that is hard to do
topic – n. a subject
positive – adj. related to the good qualities of someone or something
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