Word watch: Dilemma

A colleague pointed out some loose usage in this passage:

Your house may soon be overrun by holiday weekend houseguests. As the host, you’ll have a dilemma: what to feed them.

A dilemma is a choice between two bad alternatives, many usage experts say. To illustrate, I will refer to a scene from a favorite movie. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid faced a dilemma when they were trapped on that rocky ledge above a river as they were being chased by the posse: Stay and be killed or captured — or jump and drown or die in the fall. In other words, if you are presented with a true dilemma, you might be tempted to yell what the Kid did after you make the choice.

Bryan A. Garner writes that dilemma should not be used for plight or predicament. Or in the case of a host with guests to feed, a puzzle, a problem or even a challenge.

Of course, the fact that dilemma appears so often as a synonym for a tough choice, even between good alternatives (french toast or pancakes, sausage and egg casserole or ham and cheese omelets — yum!), indicates that the usage has found its way into the acceptable range for plenty of writers, editors and readers. Indeed, the editors of "Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage" cite several uses of dilemma when no alternatives are expressed and conclude: "Your use of the word in the sense of problem or predicament should not be a concern."

But, as I often counsel in this blog, a word choice that usage experts widely disapprove of will strike many careful readers as wrong, so it’s best to avoid it. Here is what R.W. Burchfield writes about dilemma in "Fowler’s Modern English Usage":

"There are many contexts in the past and at the present time when the line between the strict use and the ‘loose’ one is very fine, and even nonexistent. But when words like problem and difficult choice fit neatly into such contexts they should be used in preference to ‘dilemma.’"

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.