"Dilemma" and "Gone Missing"

An excerpt from Grammar Girl’s new book, 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time
Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read
Episode #327

My new book, Grammar Girl's 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time, is officially on sale! And today, I’m going to share two more entries from the book to entice you to buy the whole thing.

On the Horns of a Dilemma

The "di-" prefix in "dilemma" means “two” or “double,” which lends support to the idea that "dilemma" should be used only to describe a choice between two alternatives. The Associated Press Stylebook and Garner’s Modern American Usage not only support that limitation, but go further, saying that "dilemma" should be used only for a choice between two unpleasant options.

Nevertheless, Garner also notes that other uses are “ubiquitous.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and The Columbia Guide to Standard American English say it’s fine to use "dilemma" to describe any serious predicament, and The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style takes an intermediate position.

What Should You Do? (Is it a dilemma?) Unless you’re writing for a publication that requires you to follow a style guide that limits "dilemma" to a choice between two bad options, it’s not wrong to use "dilemma" to describe a difficult problem, even when alternatives aren’t involved, or to use "dilemma" to describe a difficult choice between pleasant options.

Still, you’ll seem most clever when you use "dilemma" to describe a choice between two bad options. In other instances, before using "dilemma," ask yourself if another word, such as "problem," would work better.

Quick and Dirty Tip: To remember that “dilemma” is best used for a choice between two things, think of the idiom “on the horns of a dilemma” and picture the mascot of the University of Texas—that longhorn steer with two big horns.

“Dilemma,” not “Dilemna”

Also, a cursory search of the Internet reveals that lots of people are confounded by the spelling of "dilemma." Many were taught to spell it wrong. In fact, I was taught to spell it "dilemna" in school, and when I got older and checked a dictionary, I was shocked to find that the word is spelled "dilemma."

Further, the only correct spelling is "dilemma." It’s not as if "dilemna" is a substandard variant or regional spelling. Dictionaries often note alternative spellings and sometimes even nonstandard spellings, but "dilemna" doesn’t even show up that way.

As far as I can tell, nobody knows why so many teachers got it wrong. It’s possible that a textbook typo is to blame.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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