"The Dilemma" was not just a box office flop starring Vince Vaughn. It's also a serious contender in the battle for Word Most Likely to Start a Grammar Fight.
A dilemma, by strict definition, refers to a situation involving two equally undesirable choices. ("I've got a real dilemma: I have to fire either Joe or Steve.")
It's often used, though, as a synonym for predicament. ("I've got a real dilemma: I lost my Visa card.")
Just this week we received a PR pitch with the following headline: "The Great Valentine's Day Dilemma: What gift says it all, does it all, in one pretty package?"
We can concoct all kinds of Valentine's Day dilemmas involving two equally undesirable choices. ("Should we go on that double date with your brother and his girlfriend who's always rude to the wait staff, or stay in and watch 'The Bachelor'?")
Locating the perfect Valentine's gift strikes us as more of a problem. A conundrum, maybe.
But Steve Kleinedler, American Heritage Dictionary supervising editor, says the reins are loosening on dilemma. The usage panel, a group of 200 writers, scholars and thinkers assembled by American Heritage to weigh in on word usage, is easing up on how narrowly the word should be defined.
"In our 1999 survey, 58 percent of the usage panel rejected the sentence, 'Historically, race has been the great dilemma of democracy,' " Kleinedler says. "This is a significant decrease from the 74 percent that rejected a similar sentence in 1988. So, many people consider that usage incorrect, but resistance to it is waning."
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary offers "a difficult or persistent problem" as one definition of dilemma. It also notes that, when dilemma refers to a difficult choice, the two options don't necessarily have to be objectionable.
"Although some commentators insist that dilemma be restricted to instances in which the alternatives to be chosen are equally unsatisfactory, their concern is misplaced," says the dictionary. "What is distressing or painful about a dilemma is having to make a choice one does not want to make."
Which means the great Valentine's Day dilemma could be dessert. "Dark chocolate mousse or raspberry compote cheesecake?" We're distressed just thinking about passing on one of those choices.
What's your nominee for Word Most Likely to Start a Grammar Fight? E-mail us at email@example.com.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times