Sorting Out a Real Dilemma

Spring training in Arizona.

Baseball’s spring training is in full swing, giving followers of our national pastime their annual opportunity to blow the dust off their stable of  horsehide clichés for another season. From every training camp in Florida and Arizona, including that of my adopted team, the perennially woeful Seattle Mariners, local media coverage will be full of  “things have never looked better,”  “he showed up in the best shape of his career” and “the offense will improve. These are major-league hitters.” Even if they hit .188, apparently.

In the Washington Post, baseball beat reporter Adam Kilgore tried to display overwhelming optimism for the hometown nine when he wrote the decision by the Washington Nationals (or “Natinals,” as the jerseys of two players read during one game in the 2009 season) to limit pitching wunderkind Steven Strasburg  to 160 innings this season might cause “a pleasant, yet thorny, dilemma”  for the Nats if they find themselves in a playoff race next September.  A playoff appearance would be their first since moving to Washington from Montreal in 2005; would they risk Strasburg’s future to get a playoff berth now?

Nationals Park, Washington, D.C.

However,  Nats fan and self-appointed Proofreader General of the United States Roland Sweet points out that  Kilgore’s copy editor should have trashed that description, specifically the “pleasant” part. Dilemma denotes a choice between equally unpleasant alternatives: a lose-lose situation.

In baseball terms, the opposite of a dilemma would be the New York Yankees trading their expensive yet ineffective left-hander A.J. Burnett and nearly $20 million to the Pittsburgh Pirates for two minor leaguers. This action not only cleared space in the Yankees’ starting pitching rotation for better alternatives, but also allowed the Bronx Bombers enough payroll space to sign two-time Seattle Mariner Raul Ibanez, a mainstay of the Philadelphia Phillies’ championship season, as their primary designated hitter. Dump a chump, sign a champ. That’s what’s known as a win-win proposition.

Home of the Washington Natinals.

Back to dilemma.  According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, “Although some commentators insist that dilemma be restricted to instances in which the alternatives to be chosen are equally unsatisfactory, their concern is misplaced; the unsatisfactoriness of the options is usually a matter of how the author presents them. What is distressing or painful about a dilemma is having to make a choice one does not want to make.

“The use of such adjectives as terrible, painful and irreconcilable suggests that dilemma is losing some of its unpleasant force. There also seems to be a tendency toward applying the word to less weighty problems (the New York Rangers solved their goaltending dilemma).

When you can’t sort out your own writing dilemma, perhaps a professional editor can help. When it comes to predicting baseball’s pennant races, however, you’re on your own.

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Filed under Behind the Words, Editing Tips, Grammar, Writing Tips

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