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A dilemma is a choice between two unfavorable or mutually exclusive alternatives. (The prefix di- is Greek for two, which is central to the word’s definition.) That’s its traditional definition, anyway, and careful writers tend to confine the word to that sense. The word is also commonly used to refer to any difficult situation, even one that doesn’t involve two mutually exclusive alternatives. Dilemma in the traditional sense is useful because English has few words denoting choices between two things, so preserving the old dilemma would be nice, yet popular usage doesn’t take these things into account.


These writers misuse dilemma to mean a difficult situation:

After the recession forced credit card companies to purge the riskiest loans, the industry is facing a new dilemma: customers who are too good. [The Dallas Morning News]

This week I address a different parenting dilemma: how not to lose patience with your kids. [Huffington Post]

Jonathan Niese won his fifth straight decision Friday night and the Mets finally solved the dilemma that’s been the Nationals, 5-3. [WSJ]

And these writers use dilemma in the more traditional sense:

There’s the dilemma … Religious organizations face a choice between altering their core beliefs or forfeiting privileges enjoyed by others.  [NYT Opinionator]

Safety vs. independence, a dilemma in caring for the elderly [headline, The Philadelphia Inquirer]

China now faces a dilemma of whether to loosen the restrictions on land supply and forego food security or live with the housing bubble but maintain food security. Both are unappealing options. [Asia One]

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