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Resolving a usage dilemma

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Written by Stan Carey

Consider the word dilemma for a moment. Without looking it up, how would you define it? Macmillan Dictionary says it is ‘a situation in which you have to make a difficult decision’. But behind this straightforward entry lies contention about what the word should mean.

Dilemma entered English from Greek, via Latin, in the early 16th century. Its first use was rhetorical; Thomas Wilson, in a book on the art of logic in 1551, describes a dilemma as ‘a horned Argument … when the reason consisteth of repugnaunt membres, so that what so euer you graunt, you fall into the snare.’ The expression ‘on the horns of a dilemma’ remains popular today, to the point of cliché.



Within decades, dilemma was being used in more general ways. Shakespeare, in ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, has Parolles say: ‘I will presently pen down my dilemmas, encourage myself in my certainty’. From the early sense of a choice between two undesirable options, it came to mean a choice between several such options, then simply a difficult situation or predicament.

This was too much for linguistic conservatives, who felt the word was being unduly weakened. Fowler wrote that dilemma ‘should be used only when there is a pair, or at least a definite number, of lines that might be taken in argument or action, & each is unsatisfactory’. He called its broad use to mean difficulty a ‘slipshod extension’. Garner’s Modern English Usage agrees, but concedes that this use is virtually universal. R.L. Trask, in Mind the Gap, says it is ‘wrong to use dilemma as no more than a fancy word for “problem” or “difficult decision”’.

The critics often have some classical education. Etymologically, the prefix di- in dilemma means ‘two’, as it does in dioxide and diphthong (cf. trilemma), which helps explain the wish that dilemma would refer strictly to two options. This is the etymological fallacy – like saying decimate must mean ‘kill one in ten’. We also see the ‘one right way’ fallacy here.

Some authorities are more permissive. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says the use of dilemma to mean ‘problem’ or ‘predicament’ is standard. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage notes that even E.B. White (of Strunk & White fame) used it this way, and says the word has ‘never been as restricted in meaning as Fowler and his successors have wished it to become’.

If you want to appease the critics, stick to the word’s narrower senses – but rest assured there’s nothing wrong with the extended senses. If you’re in a dilemma about how to pronounce it, again you have options (neither of them undesirable): /dɪˈlemə/ or /daɪˈlemə/ – the first syllable can contain either a short or a long ‘i’. The first is more traditional, but you can speak the word, and use it, as you like.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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