A choice word: dilemma

Copy editors are sometimes regarded as persnickety pests in newsrooms. We ask about words and phrases that other people use regularly. Take “dilemma,” for instance. Writers use “dilemma” to mean “problem” or “quandary.” For those of us who learned long ago in some strict senior copy editor’s on-the-job class that a “dilemma” is a choice between two bad alternatives, the sight of the word is likely to make us raise the question: Do you mean “dilemma” here, or do you mean “problem” or “challenge”? Sometimes the writers look at us as if we had two heads, both covered with writhing snakes. But this is our way of prompting writers to think about their word choices and of spreading the lessons that we learned.

I ran across “dilemma” in a story in the What’s Up section Friday (June 10). I was reading the piece as a regular reader, not as a copy editor. I stopped on the word and then read the next paragraphs to see if the writer had supported his use of the word. I think he did. Here is the beginning of the story:

Some Triangle fans of the recently reunited Pixies find themselves facing a philosophical dilemma.On the one hand, they’re dying to see the indie rock pioneers.On the other, they’re wondering how true the Pixies remain to the spirit of the genre they helped inspire, what with tickets to the Sunday night show at Disco Rodeo going for $35, a good $9-$12 more than Ryan Adams fans paid to see him Wednesday at BTI Center and $10 more than Modest Mouse fans will fork over for the buzz band’s Tuesday concert at the Raleigh Convention Center. And tickets for some other dates on this tour are going for $70, where the band will play one set of hits and another of B-sides.

It seems to me that this truly is a dilemma: Either the fans miss the concert by a band that produced what they consider good, honest music (an unpleasant alternative) or they pay a fairly high price for a concert by independent rock heroes (also an unpleasant alternative). It’s a dilemma!

By the way, “persnickety,” according to my dictionary, is a colloquialism that means “too particular or precise; fastidious, fussy.” It’s precisely the right word.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.