‘Dilemma’ or ‘Dilemna’?

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Do you have trouble spelling the word “dilemma”?

I’m nearly certain I was taught the wrong spelling in school, and when I got older and checked a dictionary, I was shocked to find that the word is spelled "dilemma." Further, the only correct spelling is “dilemma." I thought it was spelled “dilemna.” It’s not as if "dilemna" is a substandard variant or regional spelling. Dictionaries often note alternative spellings and sometimes even nonstandard spellings, but "dilemna" doesn't even show up that way.

The wrong spelling (‘dilemna’) shows up in a few books in the Google Book Corpus—not a lot of books—it peaked around 1980 and has fallen since, but it’s in what I can only call “serious publications”: court reports, books that look like they came from academic presses, journal articles, and so on. They are the kinds of things that are probably written by well-educated people, but that also probably didn’t have extensive copy editing.

One of the reasons I was looking through the Google Book Corpus was to try to see if there was a children’s book or English instruction book that had the misspelling—some reason I would have been taught the wrong spelling in school—but I didn’t find anything. From searching the web, I see that other people have also looked for such books and haven’t found them. 

I was talking about this with a friend I went to school with, and she also remembers being shocked when she finally learned the correct spelling of “dilemma” as an adult, and she also insists we were taught the wrong spelling in school. If you start poking around the internet, you’ll see that this is a common story.

The Mandela Effect

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If we’re all wrong—and we might be, since I’ve never seen proof that I was taught the wrong spelling and nobody else seems to have come up with evidence either—this could be an example of something called The Mandela Effect. It’s a form of collective misremembering: when many people remember the same thing, but they’re all wrong. The phenomenon gets its name because it was first described in 2010 when many people claimed they remembered seeing Nelson Mandela’s funeral on TV. The problem was that he was actually still alive. He died in 2013. 

How might something like that have happened with the spelling of the word “dilemma”? 

One theory is that it’s easy to think events actually happened the way we’d expect to see them. Anyone who’s ever missed a typo in their own writing will know what it feels like to see the spelling you expect to see.

I wonder whether this spelling problem could be because words with two M’s in the middle aren’t very common, and “lemma” probably wouldn’t be a word that children had heard, but nearly all children are familiar with the swear word that ends with “—mn.” While we were snickering about swear words in grade school, maybe we looked at “dilemma” with its two weird M’s, and our brains filled in the spelling that was much more familiar. We saw the spelling we expected to see. 

Michale Quinion on his World Wide Words website speculates that it might also be a misspelling by comparison to less titillating “mn” words like “autumn,” “solemn,” and “column.” And he’s found examples in respectable literature going all the way back to the 1700s and notes that because “mm” and “mn” look so similar on the page, it would be especially hard to notice that particular misspelling or typo.

And then, regardless of how the misspelling became lodged in our minds, maybe when we encounter other people who misspell the word the same way, we construct actual memories of being taught wrong in school.That must be what happened, right? How else could we both be wrong the same way? That’s one possible explanation for our collective misremembering, but I’m still holding out hope that someone will find proof we were all taught the wrong spelling!

And then there’s a second problem with the word “dilemma”: 

‘Dilemma’: A Choice Between Two Bad Options?

Some style guides say “dilemma” should be used only to describe a choice between two unpleasant options, but a lot of people use it differently.

The “di-” prefix in “dilemma” means “two” or “double,” which lends support to the idea that “dilemma” should be used to describe a choice between two, and only two, alternatives. The Associated Press and Garner’s Modern American Usage support that limitation, and go further, saying that “dilemma” should be used only for a choice between two bad options. 

Nevertheless, Garner also concedes that other uses are “ubiquitous.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and the Columbia Guide to Standard American English say it’s fine to use “dilemma” to describe any serious predicament, and the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style takes an intermediate position. What’s a writer to do? (Is it a dilemma?) 

Unless you’re following a style guide that requires you to limit “dilemma” to a choice between two bad options, I think it’s OK to use “dilemma” to describe a difficult problem, even when alternatives aren’t involved. I also think it’s fine to use “dilemma” to describe a difficult choice between pleasant options, not just unpleasant ones. As Garner says, using it that way it ubiquitous. Still, you’ll seem most clever when you use “dilemma” to describe a choice between two bad options. In other situations, before you use “dilemma,” ask yourself if another word, like “problem,” might work better.

To remember that “dilemma” is best used for a choice between two things and to remember that it’s spelled with two M’s in the middle, think of the idiom “on the horns of a dilemma” and picture the mascot of the University of Texas— a longhorn steer with two huge matching horns, like those two M’s in the word “dilemma” and the two bad choices you’re facing.

You see the dilemma, don't you? If you don't kill me, precogs were wrong and precrime is over. If you do kill me, you go away, but it proves the system works. The precogs were right. So, what are you going to do now? [Particularly nice use of “dilemma."]

— Tom Cruise as John Anderton in the movie “Minority Report”

There are two dilemmas that rattle the human skull. How do you hold onto someone who won't stay? And how do you get rid of someone who won't go? [“Problems,” “questions,” or “quandaries” would have been a better choice.]

— Danny DeVito as Gavin in the movie “War of the Roses”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.