The Distinction Dossier: A Puzzling Problem

Dilemmapredicamentquandary, and conundrum all describe certain spots of bother. As we shouldn’t, however, like a pizza deliveryman to arrive where we need armed police, it is best that we use our language to distinguish problems accurately, the former being those of mild hunger and a hulking and aggressive home-intruder, respectively. 

Dilemma, predicament, and quandary are words that comprise a group of words that describe complicated, perplexing situations from which one would have a difficult moment or two disentangling oneself. They also, however, have discreet meanings, which have a kind of  loosely linked logical crescendo of unfortunate events.

Dilemma, for your average Cretan, describes any difficult situation, but dilemma’s true meaning is to describe two possibilities in which one faces a choice between equally undesirable alternatives, something of a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” sort of pinch. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a popular one that intellectuals enjoy casually dropping into dinner conversation, hoping that the eyebrows of members of the opposite sex find the topic interesting.

Pictures might aid the visually inclined.

Here we see the classic dog-faced-man/man-faced-dog rump-chewing choice.

Dilemma is pre-predicament, as it is assumed that, prior to the dilemma at hand, things were popping along sans rump-chewing.

But now we are in a predicament: a difficult situation that is especially unpleasant or unfortunate. Predicaments might be best understood as “currently having a rough go.” Some warm-blooded people call these “jam ups.”

Here no choice is to be made. You’re going for a swim. This is merely a tough spot.

Quandary: A state of uncertainty or confusion that renders one unable to act, which is often accompanied by puzzled, doubtful, and uncertain feelings. Affecting anyone from lovers to lummoxes, quandaries span the situational gamut. 

Here we see James Herriot in a quandary. To help Tristan would be to honor a friend–and recidivist–whilst the opposing action would honor the professional relation with his boss, Sigfried, thoroughly frying Tristan, but, perhaps simultaneously beginning Tristan’s recovery from alcohol-induced fun-having, which is what a good friend does. James rightly falters in his step.

conundrum, however, has its own category. A conundrum specifically denotes a complicated, perplexing question or problemnot situation. A conundrum manifests as a riddle or puzzle, the answer to which often involves a pun or play on words, though it can also be purely a logical conundrum. Ironically, unlike the rest of the words on this list, conundrum’s etymology is unknown, though sources such as Fowler and the OED suggest its origins in 16th-century Oxford or Cambridge as a pseudo-Latin joke, like hocus-pocus. 

Here we see the kind of conundrum that keeps me up nights, but the likes of which are solved daily by schoolchildren in Russia.

The proper definition of conundrum.

All tight spots, to be sure.

In the Mood

It has been indicated by highly qualified representatives with compelling signs on their front yards that we live in an age of Science. As I understand it, today’s Scientific Method, an evolved offspring of the Enlightenment Era’s model, is an empirical method of acquiring social ghost-knowledge, whose rigorous dogmas are roughly as follows: Conjure Issue, React Violently, Subvert Data, Hunt for Justification, and Terminate All Opposers. I have never claimed to be a member of the scientific community, but I should like perhaps to venture a contrary assertion.

Many English-speakers, much as the ultracrepidarian proposes to know any and all, are too willing to impose upon others the indicative mood, which suggests far too much certainty. Other languages have not deteriorated as far. Luckily a more scientific mood exists.

English’s subjunctive mood is a verbal form that, in main contrast to the indicative mood’s indication of certain information, denotes what is imagined, wished, asserted, exhorted, proposed, or otherwise expresses possibility or hypothesis. 

The subjunctive mood may be achieved in a few ways.

The use of be and were instead of the indicative forms, am/is/are/was:

Indicative mistake: If it is in the interest of the court, I’d like to sell my lawn mower to the witness.

Subjunctive: If it be in the interest of the court, I’d like to refuse the prosecutor’s offer. 

Indicative Mistake: If I was to accuse the witness of passing up a perfectly good lawn mower, would your honor find merit in it?

Subjunctive: If you were to accuse the witness at all, I would doubt your sense of honor in the main.

The absence of the final -s in the third-person singular tense:

Indicative Mistake: If Gordon’s doctor were again to refuse treatment, then I suggest he sees a medicine man. 

Subjunctive: If Gordon’s doctor were again to refuse treatment, then I suggest he see another medical professional.

The subjunctive form may also inhabit the following patterns:

After As If/ As Though. 

  • As if the possession of money were a kind of curse, he eschewed work altogether. 
  • Feeling as though he were the target of a workplace harassment, Jimmy began to air indiscriminately personal grievances at what was previously a dispassionate meeting about third-quarter federal tax reductions. 

After That-clauses (following a verb connoting suggestion)

  • This minor indiscretion suggests that Jimmy be either very stressed or very bad at interpreting metrics. 
  • He insisted that Natalia sit across from him.
  • That she were a Soviet Sleeper Agent was entirely unknown to him, but her legs were otherwise.

Be/Were at the head of a clause

  • Were I to get drunk this evening, I might find temporary satisfaction about my state with kings.
  • Be they Christian or otherwise, I shall still give them a proper good kicking.
  • I might have done a better job with the heart surgery, were I a qualified surgeon. 

And here are a few familiar, according to Fowler, “fossilized clauses” that express a wish, “whose realization depends on conditions beyond the power or control of the speaker”/writer. 

  • Be that as it may
  • So be it
  • Come what may
  • Far be it from me to
  • God forbid
  • God save the Queen
  • The powers that be
  • So be it

Suffice it to say that.

For further enquires as regards the subjunctive mood, you may contact my recently qualified representative, Tristan Farnon.

Meddling Modifiers

Spineless Descriptivists in Birkenstocks suggest that to experience high dudgeon at the sight of a split infinitive is to commit low superstition. Bootlicking Turbo-Purists with dyspepsia have diagnosed that the absence of undergoing a real medical event at the sight of a postposition is indicative of an even greater mental illness. A healthy Centrist consensus seems to reign, however, that to misplace a modifier is to burden the reader’s senses with a solecism equal to that of a grammatical flatulence. 

Modifier is an attributive word that, through description or elaboration, either augments or restricts the meaning of a head noun. Modifiers also manifest in the phrasal form, and they must be as close as possible to whatever they describe or elaborate. If this rule be not observed, sentences will often be awkward, confusing, or downright illogical. 

Firstly, there are misplaced modifying words:

Looking out of the window, Saoirse saw the grey neighbor’s cat.

Unless Saoirse or her neighbor desperately needs to see a doctor, it is likely that what Saoirse saw was actually the neighbor’s grey cat.

Contorting one’s limbs quickly damages one’s joints. 

This one’s called a Squinting Modifier, as the reader will undoubtedly squint when attempting to deduce which thing the modifier is attempting to modify. 

It is imagined by yours truly that contorting one’s limbs at any speed is likely a detriment to one’s joint health. And, as this sentence is very likely implying that same notion, a better construction might appear thusly:

Contorting one’s limbs damages one’s joints quickly.

Known recidivists are the adverbs just and only

Did Saoirse “just misidentify the cat’s color?” or did Saoirse “misidentify just the cat’s color?”

But that’s not the only problem.

Is “only contorting one’s limbs damaging to one’s joints?” or is “contorting one’s limbs damaging only one’s joints?”

Not to mention this naughty conundrum:

Does not Saoirse seem to have pussy issues? Does Saoirse not seem to have pussy issues? Or does Saoirse seem not to have pussy issues? God forbid that Saoirse seem to not have pussy issues. 

Often, modifiers take the form of participials, a verbal form that is used as an adjective that most often ends in -ing (present participial) or -ed (past participial).

If not for watching Jerry Seinfeld’s soporific Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, we would be under the assumption that the comedians were experiencing something of a wild ride. But the comedians, not the cars, are the ones getting coffee. 

Misplaced Modifier errors also frequently arise in the phrasal form (prepositional phrases, adverbial phrases, et cetera).

Consider the curious case of Dr. James Berry:

“Historians have been kept guessing over claims that Dr. James Berry, Inspector General of Military Hospitals, was, in fact, a woman for more than 140 years.”

Either these are some rather unobserving historians, or that’s quite an age to begin the old-fashioned gender crisis.  

It is exceedingly likely, however, that indeed it was not Dr. James Berry, but rather the aforementioned historians who had spent the last 140 years guessing. 

The largest error of the phrasal kind is what is known as a Dangling Modifier or Unattached Participial. These are participial phrases that, before the subject appears, intend to describe or modify something about the subject of that sentence. One can achieve this by dropping the subject from one of the two sentences and compressing those two sentences into one. Written properly, modifying phrases quickly establish causal relation, whilst simultaneously providing concision and style. Written improperly, modifying phrases, as Kingsley Amis wrote in his book The King’s English, make readers “pause without profit,” spending extra time evaluating the sentence to understand the logic of what’s being said, likely adding further inaccuracy. This is when we encounter the stench of what Kingsley Amis called “a real solecism.” Get a whiff of this:

“Being a vegan bisexual who’s into Nicaraguan coffee picking and boiler suits, you could safely assume that I vote Labour.”

That’s news to me. Here, the solecism is that the modifying phrase beginning with “being” describes “you” instead of “I,” rendering this sentence as particularly presumptive. Modifying phrases need always be directly before the subject that they describe.

“While serving in the RAF in North Africa (sic) the cockroaches and other creatures…”

Those are rather harsh sobriquets for one’s fighting men and women. 

“Driving near home recently, a thick pall of smoke…”

A thick pall of smoke behind the helm of a motor vehicle? 

All credible sources seem to support, however, that some participials that act as marginal prepositions, subordinating conjunctions, or adverbs (considering, assuming, barring), by way of the classic idiomatic thumbs up, create acceptable dangling modifiers:

Considering the situation, Old Slim reckoned that he made out good. 

Assuming this were a typical city, the proportion of happiness to crime seemed unjustly high.

Barring accidents, the bus full of drunk nuns should be home well before Saturday Mass.

For further information or enquires as regards modifiers, please contact my spiritual twin, Tristan Farnon: