• 2-minute read
  • 7th November 2020

Spelling Tips: Dilemma or Dilemna?

If you have a problem, are you facing a “dilemma” or a “dilemna”? Only one of these spellings is correct. To make sure your writing is error free, then, check out our guide to what this word means and how to spell it correctly.

What Does Dilemma Mean?

Traditionally, a “dilemma” is a difficult choice between two options:

He faced the dilemma of choosing between his job and his marriage.

The dilemma is whether to prioritize the environment or the economy.

This was because the “di-” in “dilemma” originally meant “two.”

Over time, though, this noun has come to mean “a difficult choice or problem” more generally. As such, it is often used in situations where there are more than two options available. For instance:

Doctors face an ethical dilemma when a patient refuses treatment.

Experimental research on animals poses a moral dilemma.

With all the options available, choosing a university can be a dilemma.

Typically, “dilemma” implies an unpleasant choice. This could be because both options have negative consequences. But it can also simply be that picking one thing involves ruling out other desirable outcomes.

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The Error: Dilemna

As in all the examples above, the correct spelling of this word is “dilemma.” However, many people misspell this word as “dilemna”:

Deciding whether or not to act can be a dilemna.

Deciding whether or not to act can be a dilemma.

Journalists are often confronted with ethical dilemnas.

Journalists are often confronted with ethical dilemmas.

This may be because “mm” and “mn” look similar. But “dilemna” is always an error: in all cases, “dilemma” should be spelled with a double “m.”

Summary: Dilemma or Dilemna?

A “dilemma” is a difficult choice or problem, often involving two or more undesirable options. Some people make the mistake of spelling this word with an “mn” instead of a double “mm.” But “dilemna” is always an error!

To avoid this mistake, remember that the “di-” in this word originally meant “two.” Helpfully, this matches the two Ms in the middle of “dilemma”!

And for more help with your spelling, or any other aspect of your writing, why not submit a free trial document to our proofreaders?

Comments (14)
Peter Hall-Jones
2nd May 2021 at 02:02
I've just spent a rather fun afternoon down the rabbithole with Google Scholar. The earliest example of 'dilemna' I can find is a typo from 1842 in the book 'The Mirza' by British diplomat James Justinian Morier. We can tell that it is a typo because he spells the same word 'dilemma' in six other places within the same book. The misspelling seems to have then gained currency and been transmitted within theological papers for the rest of the century, and half way into the next. During this time the same misspelling also found its way into the German language. The earliest example I could find of this was from 1843, just one year after Morier's typo. It seems likely that the clincher, which embedded 'dilemna' into mainstream English usage and the core curriculum, was its appearance in Twain's Huckleberry Finn in 1884. (see https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=-bAIAAAAQAAJ...). I'd love help to track this one back further, if possible! If you find an earlier usage please contact me at pwhalljones@gmail.com. Here are the two relevant documents: 1) The Mirza, James Justinian Morier, 1842: https://books.googleusercontent.com/books/content... 2) Der Symbolzwang und die protestantische Lehr- und Gewissensfreiheit, Julius Rupp, 1843: https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=N9lGAAAAcAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=dilemna&ots=7OAa4OSxOr&sig=mvVgxu0LZ95wcSQs9qnkzPnCEYQ
    30th April 2022 at 02:28
Peter Hall-Jones
2nd May 2021 at 03:19
Further to the comment above, it seems that there was also a typo in at least two early editions of 'Robinson Crusoe' (1719). This seems most likely to have been the printer's mistake as Defoe spelled it correctly elsewhere. The word was also misspelled in Oliver Goldsmith's 'History of England' (1771) and Isaac Watt's 'Logic' (1772). Then it was nailed in place when 'dilemna' was included in 'The Civil Service Spelling Book' by R Johnson (1868). Many thanks to Michael Quinion for this! See http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-dil1.htm. So... Crusoe, Goldsmith and Twain. That's a pretty good pedigree. I reckon a pedant could string together an argument for calling 'dilemna' an alternative spelling. Let's not.
Peter Hall-Jones
2nd May 2021 at 05:21
Going back one step further, the first English usage of 'dilemna' that I have been able to trace dates from 1570. By wat of comparison, the first appearance of 'dilemma' wasn't much earlier (1547). To put this in context, Caxton set up his first printing press in 1472. So, this mistake has been with us for just about as long as could be! Even longer, in fact: Erasmus' printer made the equivalent mistake in Latin in 1514 (in Adagiorum chiliades), while earlier examples of 'dilemna' in Latin appear as far back as 1498. That leaves a grand total of 26 years without the spelling 'dilemna' appearing in print.
    3rd May 2021 at 09:58
    Some good research there, Peter! Thanks. It's especially interesting to note that the error existed even before 'dilemma' entered the English language!
      23rd October 2021 at 07:44
      What a dilemma!
don mcbean
1st February 2022 at 14:02
Wow! Amazing! I just landed here to try to justify what I've always believed to be the correct spelling "mna"… not very inclined to try and refute anything that you all are saying here! One more time – amazing and thank you very much!
    1st February 2022 at 16:06
    Thanks, Don! Glad you found it helpful.
Mary Jones
28th February 2022 at 14:14
My mother ALWAYS used the '-mna' spelling, which I took as gospel even after my mathematical exposure to the root word. Your citation of the nailed version resolved mine!
Greg Green
5th October 2022 at 13:50
This seems like gaslighting. I’ve never seen it spelt double m until now and I’m 64.
    14th October 2022 at 12:34
    Hi, Greg! It certainly seems that this word has been causing confusion for centuries (and still inspiring research even now). I hope this article’s been helpful.
    Cathy Crawford
    28th March 2023 at 01:43
    Hi! We had a joke in my family where we always pronounced the N in dilemma, as ALL of us also thought it was spelled with an N (I had a big family). It seems likely one or several of our childhood books (maybe the Nancy Drews?) or even Dad's big red dictionary had it spelled with an N. I grew up thinking I was crazy and dreamed up the whole thing because suddenly, it was forever and evermore spelled with two M's. Thank goodness for the internet, because I finally got my Dilemna validated. ; )
Steve K
3rd January 2023 at 19:39
I'm 60 and had suspicions of gaslighting in association with Word spell check. My mother was an excellent speller and I took the mn word as correct. Thank everyone for showing the research and I will, (after 60 years) , use dilemma.
    7th January 2023 at 14:15
    Thanks, Steve! It’s definitely been an interesting journey following this word's usage and everyone’s thoughts on this.

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