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Grammar Girl 语法女孩(2012年) "Dilemma" and "Gone Missing" (July 5, 2012)

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Episode 327: July 5, 2012

Sponsor: The podcast version of this article is brought to you by Stitcher. With free Stitcher SmartRadio, you can listen to this and thousands of other podcasts on your mobile phone. Use the promo code GG for a chance to win a cash prize.

My new book, Grammar Girl's 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time, is officially on sale! And today, I’m going to share two more entries from the book to entice you to buy the whole thing.

On the Horns of a Dilemma

The "di-" prefix in "dilemma" means “two” or “double,” which lends support to the idea that "dilemma" should be used only to describe a choice between two alternatives. The Associated Press Stylebook and Garner’s Modern American Usage not only support that limitation, but go further, saying that "dilemma" should be used only for a choice between two unpleasant options.

Nevertheless, Garner also notes 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 Should You Do? (Is it a dilemma?) Unless you’re writing for a publication that requires you to follow a style guide that limits "dilemma" to a choice between two bad options, it’s not wrong to use "dilemma" to describe a difficult problem, even when alternatives aren’t involved, or to use "dilemma" to describe a difficult choice between pleasant options.

Still, you’ll seem most clever when you use "dilemma" to describe a choice between two bad options. In other instances, before using "dilemma," ask yourself if another word, such as "problem," would work better.

Quick and Dirty Tip: To remember that “dilemma” is best used for a choice between two things, think of the idiom “on the horns of a dilemma” and picture the mascot of the University of Texas--that longhorn steer with two big horns.

“Dilemma,” not “Dilemna”

Also, a cursory search of the Internet reveals that lots of people are confounded by the spelling of "dilemma." Many were taught to spell it wrong. In fact, I was taught to spell it "dilemna" 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." 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.

As far as I can tell, nobody knows why so many teachers got it wrong. It’s possible that a textbook typo is to blame.

“Gone Missing”: Annoying, but not Wrong

"Gone missing" is a Briticism that has made its way to the U.S., where reporters use it mostly to describe missing persons. Although journalists and newscasters seem to love "gone missing," it’s easy to find vocal readers and viewers who hate it.

Haters argue that a person must go to a location, and "missing" isn’t a place, and that an inanimate object can’t go missing because it can’t take action alone—but English has never been so literal.

In a tight labor market, jobs can go begging (be unfilled), for example, even though "begging" is not a location and jobs can’t take action.

Other peevers suggest that "gone missing" necessitates an action on the part of the person or item that has vanished. Again, we have parallels that undermine the argument: Milk goes bad, for example, without taking any action on its own.

"Gone missing" is not wrong. The Oxford English Dictionary places it in the same category as the phrase "go native," as in, "We had high hopes for our new senator, but after he was in Washington a few months, he went native," (i.e., adopted the same habits and attitudes as people who’ve been there a long time).

What Should You Do? If "gone missing" bothers you, use a word such as "disappeared" in your own writing. You can criticize "gone missing" as annoying if you like, but not as incorrect.

If you’re writing for a newspaper or TV show though, be aware that "gone missing" annoys part of your audience. You should probably should think twice before using it.

Those tips were both from my new book, 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time. Some of the other words and phrases I cover are "begs the question," "done" versus "finished," "myriad," "grow" (for example, is it OK to say "grow the economy"?), and "a pair of twins" (is that two people or four people?) Get your copy today at an online or local bookstore, and if you like it, please leave review.

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