Friday, March 23, 2012

Dilemma or predicament?

I was watching a makeover-style show on television this morning where the person being made over said, "Anna and Kristina fixed my fashion dilemma!" She was attending a black tie wedding and didn't have a think to wear. It got me thinking how I've observed a lot of people using this word incorrectly. When I was in school, one of our vocabulary lessons was to learn the difference between "predicament" and "dilemma". We were told that a dilemma is when you have a problem involving a choice between 2 alternatives, it's a dilemma. If there are more than 2, you would have a predicament.

I have always taken this at face value. I mean, our teachers should know, right? So I checked my favourite online dictionary, the Oxford Dictionary, and here is now Oxford defines it:

  • a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable:he wants to make money, but he also disapproves of it: Den’s dilemma in a nutshell
  • 1 a difficult situation or problem:the insoluble dilemma of adolescence2 Logic an argument forcing an opponent to choose either of two unfavourable alternatives.
Now, in the second definition, it's only in the context of philosophy that dilemma indicates only 2 alternatives, but in general everyday use, a dilemma can refer to 2 or more alternatives. Now I dislike being wrong, but I'm glad that something made me want to look up this word so that I could learn its definition.

Of course, being that the way I learned about dilemma was slightly faulty, I had to question my knowledge of the definition of predicament. Here's how Oxford defines it:


  • 1a difficult, unpleasant, or embarrassing situation:the club’s financial predicament2 (in Aristotelian logic) each of the ten ‘categories’, often listed as: substance or being, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, posture, having or possession, action, and passion.
So it seems that my understanding of the word predicament was definitely off as well, but at least I don't feel that I've been using it incorrectly all my life! I haven't been using dilemma incorrectly, either, only that there were more instances where I could have used it than I did.

No matter how much you know about a subject, there is always going to be something new to learn! I still think that the person in the show used the term incorrectly, however. I fail to see what her unpleasant alternatives were. She had a choice between dressing well for the party or not dressing well. Perhaps her implication was that she didn't know how to choose the right outfit for the party, so if left to her own devices, she would have had a dilemma because all her choices would have been wrong, and that's why she needed the assistance of experts. Maybe I just think too deeply about it!

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