Which Word Wednesday: Dilemma vs. Problem

By August 17, 2011 language No Comments

Some of us have pets, and most of us have pet peeves, but everyone has pet words—whether you know it or not.

My pet words come to me like strays. I could be minding my own daily grind when a word cozies up to me. Before I know it, I’m feeding it, loving on it, and calling it mine.

For example, I like the word dilemma. It rolls nicely off the tongue, and I thought it could be applied to all manner of difficult and challenging circumstances. Then I came across the entry for dilemma versus problem, and I realized I had a problem with my use of dilemma. Now it’s up to Which Word Wednesday to sort it all out. Let’s start with the definitions from the Oxford American Dictionary:

dilemma :: noun
a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, esp. equally undesirable ones

problem :: noun
a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome

Difficult situations are at issue here. According to Dave Dowling’s The Wrong Word Dictionary, dilemma should be used when there is a choice to be made between specific alternatives; problem should be used to describe the situation as a whole.1

The OAD offers this caution:

The weakened use of dilemma to mean simply ‘a difficult situation or problem’ ( : the dilemma of a teacher shortage) is recorded as early as the first part of the 17th century, but many regard this use as unacceptable and it should be avoided in written English.

And Mark Davidson supports this caution in Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage, noting that “traditional use [is] illustrated by the phrase ‘on the horns of a dilemma.’ ”2

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What’s my WWW verdict? Unless I am choosing between alternatives, I have a problem to solve, not a dilemma to settle. Now I need to detach my word-loving heart from using dilemma to describe any and every difficult situation I encounter. [sigh.]

What’s your verdict? Do you have pet words? I want to know! Do you have pet peeves? Those are fascinating! Do you have pets? Tell me all about it in the comments.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Dave Dowling, The Wrong Word Dictionary (Oak Park, IL: Marion Street Press, 2005), 81.
2. Mark Davidson, Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 203.

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