Definition of dilemma in US English:



  • 1A situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially equally undesirable ones.

    ‘the people often face the dilemma of feeding themselves or their cattle’
    • ‘Ethical dilemmas, by definition, are difficult to handle because no decision is without its costs: whatever the outcome, someone is going to be upset.’
    • ‘The problem with these false dilemmas is that we are undersold - we think we must be either/or.’
    • ‘He wasn't good with dilemmas, choices usually involved thinking and thinking wasn't his strong point.’
    • ‘The dilemma, like all ethical dilemmas, arose by virtue of a conflict between values.’
    • ‘That he chose to open up about the dilemma between security and normality indicates rough times ahead.’
    • ‘How are your character's dilemmas, the various choices he faces, resolved?’
    • ‘He both convenes community and shatters its calcifications, creating the space for oracular truths to emerge while posing equally provocative dilemmas.’
    • ‘He was given two tough choices, a dilemma that he didn't wish to have.’
    • ‘There are ethical dilemmas about whether it is right to amass personal collections of material inaccessible to more detailed research, or to sell such collections on the open market.’
    • ‘Pretending that we do not need to discuss such questions will not make the dilemmas and hard choices that are looming for Australia go away.’
    • ‘Ultimately, as is the case in almost all ethical dilemmas in medicine, a series of practical considerations will move me further in one direction than another.’
    • ‘In reality, the objective of the article was to illustrate the dilemmas and choices which have to be made by Highways Authorities.’
    • ‘They might finally confront the central dilemma of inadequate global demand versus the permanent overabundance of supply.’
    • ‘It's the ultimate dilemma for the indecisive: two women, attractive, intelligent, devoted.’
    • ‘His dilemma rests in the choice between telling a lie and losing his chance to marry the woman he loves.’
    • ‘The dilemma of a choice between chaos and injustice is perhaps very real.’
    • ‘There are all of these moral dilemmas and choices that they're responsible for.’
    • ‘This book reveals the choices and dilemmas that confront elite public research universities.’
    • ‘All the problems that humans encounter sets up a powerful dilemma: the choice between life and death.’
    • ‘A similar dilemma arises for those who condemn termination in any circumstances but support the death penalty.’
    quandary, predicament, difficulty, problem, puzzle, conundrum, awkward situation, tricky situation, difficult situation, difficult choice, catch-22, vicious circle, plight, mess, muddle
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    1. 1.1 A difficult situation or problem.
      ‘the insoluble dilemma of adolescence’
      • ‘If the arts, and poetry in particular, are to be useful they must continue to address the problems and dilemmas of the age they live in.’
      • ‘These dilemmas and troubles faced by the Chinese middle-class are not unique to China, as middle-class people in other countries go through similar types of angsts and experiences.’
      • ‘Whatever your own problems, difficulties or dilemmas, when a friend comes to you in tears or with the look on her face, it's your job to drop everything and listen.’
      • ‘But why have a dedicated international gay sports event, and what sorts of difficulties and dilemmas do homosexual sportspeople face that others don't?’
      • ‘What better way for a man of means and intellect to get to know the real dilemmas and down-to-earth problems of the people he so gallantly serves?’
      • ‘We can understand the dilemmas and difficulties his characters face, but never truly feel them.’
      • ‘There are several factors that make such research different from other types of research, and some difficulties and dilemmas are almost unavoidable.’
      • ‘Democracy in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious country like India poses difficult problems and dilemmas not easy to resolve.’
      • ‘Priests and social elders often serve as guides and mediators to help resolve relationship conflicts and dilemmas, facilitating communication and dialog among the parties.’
      • ‘The life of the architect is so fraught with uncertainty and dilemmas that any clarification of the future, including astrology, is disproportionately welcome.’
      • ‘The novel delves into the dilemma of the problems in keeping a secret that will hang over you for all of your life.’
      • ‘The struggle by peoples the world over to find a solution to an insoluble dilemma will continue ad infinitum.’
      • ‘The dilemmas, the problems, and the consequences are all considered in excruciating detail.’
      • ‘Nevertheless, there are issues where being on the girls' team brings up its own dilemmas, difficulties and suspicions that things aren't quite as we would like them to be.’
      • ‘When you got one of those complicated dilemmas or challenges, you hired the folks at a full-service consulting firm and paid them millions of dollars, and they helped you.’
      • ‘Neither writer resorts to saccharine: both reflect accurately and sympathetically the dilemmas and delusions of adolescence.’
      • ‘Aligning the design of life and a sustaining culture with the human needs that brain science is beginning to reveal would, I think, have a profound impact on many of the most troubling social dilemmas we face.’
      • ‘Guidelines that disseminate new information and provide advice are welcome, but they should not be couched so rigidly as to present clinicians who practise in the current defensive culture with insoluble dilemmas.’
      • ‘All of which suggests that while South Africa has begun to face up to its apartheid past, it has rather more trouble confronting the sexual dilemmas of its present.’
      • ‘But in an age of mass-production, we have managed to turn shopping for a basic food into a complicated dilemma.’
      quandary, predicament, difficulty, problem, puzzle, conundrum, awkward situation, tricky situation, difficult situation, difficult choice, catch-22, vicious circle, plight, mess, muddle
      View synonyms
    2. 1.2Logic An argument forcing an opponent to choose either of two unfavorable alternatives.
      • ‘‘Jointness’ allows us to bring together capabilities and effects that create overwhelming dilemmas for our opponents.’
      • ‘He reckons that Hegel becomes ensnared in dilemmas and contradictions.’
      • ‘That, in our submission, gives rise to something of a logical dilemma.’


At its core, a dilemma is a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives (this is my dilemma: do I stay here for the job security, or do I risk it all for the chance of a better career?). More informally, dilemma can mean ‘a difficult situation or problem’ (as in the insoluble dilemma of adolescence). Some traditionalists object to this weakened use, but it is recorded as early as the first part of the 17th century, and is now widespread and generally acceptable. Note that dilemma is spelled with a double m in the middle, not as -mn-


Early 16th century (denoting a form of argument involving a choice between equally unfavorable alternatives): via Latin from Greek dilēmma, from di- ‘twice’ + lēmma ‘premise’.