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’
    • ‘In reality, the objective of the article was to illustrate the dilemmas and choices which have to be made by Highways Authorities.’
    • ‘That he chose to open up about the dilemma between security and normality indicates rough times ahead.’
    • ‘They might finally confront the central dilemma of inadequate global demand versus the permanent overabundance of supply.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘All the problems that humans encounter sets up a powerful dilemma: the choice between life and death.’
    • ‘He both convenes community and shatters its calcifications, creating the space for oracular truths to emerge while posing equally provocative dilemmas.’
    • ‘How are your character's dilemmas, the various choices he faces, resolved?’
    • ‘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 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.’
    • ‘He was given two tough choices, a dilemma that he didn't wish to have.’
    • ‘He wasn't good with dilemmas, choices usually involved thinking and thinking wasn't his strong point.’
    • ‘There are all of these moral dilemmas and choices that they're responsible for.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘The dilemma, like all ethical dilemmas, arose by virtue of a conflict between values.’
    • ‘The problem with these false dilemmas is that we are undersold - we think we must be either/or.’
    • ‘This book reveals the choices and dilemmas that confront elite public research universities.’
    • ‘It's the ultimate dilemma for the indecisive: two women, attractive, intelligent, devoted.’
    • ‘A similar dilemma arises for those who condemn termination in any circumstances but support the death penalty.’
    • ‘Ethical dilemmas, by definition, are difficult to handle because no decision is without its costs: whatever the outcome, someone is going to be upset.’
    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’
      • ‘The dilemmas, the problems, and the consequences are all considered in excruciating detail.’
      • ‘The life of the architect is so fraught with uncertainty and dilemmas that any clarification of the future, including astrology, is disproportionately welcome.’
      • ‘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?’
      • ‘But why have a dedicated international gay sports event, and what sorts of difficulties and dilemmas do homosexual sportspeople face that others don't?’
      • ‘Neither writer resorts to saccharine: both reflect accurately and sympathetically the dilemmas and delusions of adolescence.’
      • ‘But in an age of mass-production, we have managed to turn shopping for a basic food into a complicated dilemma.’
      • ‘The struggle by peoples the world over to find a solution to an insoluble dilemma will continue ad infinitum.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘There are several factors that make such research different from other types of research, and some difficulties and dilemmas are almost unavoidable.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘Priests and social elders often serve as guides and mediators to help resolve relationship conflicts and dilemmas, facilitating communication and dialog among the parties.’
      • ‘Democracy in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious country like India poses difficult problems and dilemmas not easy to resolve.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘The novel delves into the dilemma of the problems in keeping a secret that will hang over you for all of your life.’
      • ‘We can understand the dilemmas and difficulties his characters face, but never truly feel them.’
      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.’
      • ‘That, in our submission, gives rise to something of a logical dilemma.’
      • ‘He reckons that Hegel becomes ensnared in dilemmas and contradictions.’


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’.