Problems, difficulties, dilemmas, enigmas, paradoxes and predicaments

(Level B1 and above: vocabulary around the word “problem” and different kinds of problems)

Written and compiled by Benedicte Gravrand, English trainer at The Language House in Geneva


Do you have a problem? Yes, we all do at one time or another.

A problem to solve (résoudre), a problem to unravel, a problem that is annoying, or maybe a problem that is driving you mad. If you believe the popular interpretation of Murphy’s Law which says, “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” then you’re ready to handle (s’occuper de) the inevitable problems coming your way.

But what kind of problem do you have, exactly? Is it a difficulty, an obstacle, a complication, a muddle, a mix-up, a snag, a hitch, a stumbling block, or a hurdle? There are so many different words for different kinds of problems, that naming them can be problematic.

  • Muddle: a confused situation
  • Mix-up: a mistake due to confusion
  • Hitch: a problem that is not very serious
  • Stumbling block: a difficulty that prevents progress
  • Hurdle: one of several problems that you must solve before you can do something successfully

Problems can be pressing, insurmountable, tricky, troublesome, knotty, thorny, delicate, worrying and of course embarrassing, and we’ve all had a few of those…

  • Pressing: urgent
  • Insurmountable: impossible to deal with
  • Tricky: difficult
  • Troublesome: annoying
  • Knotty: difficult to solve or understand
  • Thorny: difficult to deal with
  • Delicate: that needs to be dealt with carefully
  • Worrying: causing anxiety
  • Embarrassing: making you feel nervous, ashamed, or stupid


What do you do with a problem?

Our job is to solve, talk them over, think them through, sort them out but mostly importantly deal with (s’occuper de) them. What do you do when you run into a problem?

  • Solve: to find a solution
  • Talk something over: discuss something thoroughly and honestly
  • Think something through: consider the facts in an organised way
  • Sort something out: do what is necessary to deal with a problem
  • Deal with: to take action to do something, especially to solve a problem
  • Run into: to start to have trouble​/​difficulty​/​problems, etc.


Different kinds of problems:

Let’s take the paradox, for example. A paradox is a person, thing, or situation that is strange because they have qualities that do not normally exist together. For example, there’s the famous Liar’s paradox. The statement, “this statement is a lie”, is a paradox because if that statement is indeed a lie, then it would be saying the truth. And vice versa. This statement contradicts itself and indicates that it is both true and false.

Then there’s the dilemma. A dilemma is a situation offering a choice between two equally undesirable alternatives. You can also call it a predicament.  For example, the US is facing a dilemma: the country wants to send more weapons to Ukraine but Russia says that if the Americans do so, the Russians will take more aggressive action. What to do? The country is in a quandary (not certain what decision to take).

You can also call a dilemma a Catch-22 situation, a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules or limitations. For example, how can you get any work experience if you cannot find a job that gives you work experience? The expression comes from the title of a 1962 novel by Joseph Heller, about a group of people in the US air force who find themselves in a number of funny situations caused by silly military rules.



Catch-22 – Film Trailer


Then there is the enigma. An enigma is mysterious and difficult to understand. A famous enigma is dark matter; astronomers say it exists because it interacts with what we can see, yet we cannot see it. Then there’s Jack the Ripper, a late 19th c. serial killer in London who was never identified. And the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 that went missing in March 2014 while crossing the Indian Ocean. It just vanished. What a mystery!


Enigma – film trailer


The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser – film trailer


There is the conundrum, that is, a difficult problem, or a puzzle, that is difficult or impossible to solve. For example, there is this theological conundrum of the existence of evil and suffering in a world created by a good God. Or the famous moral conundrum of the “Trolley problem.” The word conundrum covers different types of situations, from moral dilemmas to riddles. A riddle is a puzzle. For example, “There is a house. One enters it blind (aveugle) and comes out seeing. What is it?” (Answer: A school.)


The Trolley Problem explained – with subtitles:


You also have the so-called wicked problem (contribution from David), which is a social problem with no single solution, and resistance to the resolution. A problem whose solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets (mentalités) and behaviour, like global climate change, is likely to be a wicked problem.


Wicked problems explained


When faced with (en face de) a problem, you could always call on Occam’s razor, an old problem-solving principle that says the simpler explanation is to be preferred.


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  • unimportant/slight/significant/serious/massive/insurmountable problem
  • She has a lot of health (santé) problems
  • financial/social/technical problems
  • Let me know if you have a problem / any problems
  • The government must address (try to deal with) the problem of child poverty
  • We cannot tackle (deal with) this problem on our own
  • Money isn’t going to solve (resolve) the problem
  • (especially North American English) to fix (settle, resolve) a problem
  • If you have problems at home, it’s bound to affect your work (it will certainly happen)
  • To pose/create a problem
  • The problem first arose (happened, started) in 2018.
  • problem with something: There is a problem with this argument.
  • problem of something: the problem of drug abuse
  • problem of doing something: Most students face the problem of funding themselves while they are studying
  • problem for somebody: Unemployment is a very real problem for graduates now
  • It’s a nice table! The only problem is (that) it’s too big for our room
  • Part of the problem is the shape of the room
  • Stop worrying about their marriage—it is not your problem
  • There’s no history of heart problems (disease connected with the heart) in our family.
  • The magazine’s problem page (containing letters about readers’ problems and advice about how to solve them)
  • First World problem – a problem that is actually very minor, especially when compared with the serious problems faced by people who live in countries where there is extreme poverty – Can’t decide which smartphone to buy? What a horrible First World problem to have!

Garry Littman

Garry Littman est le fondateur de The Language House à Genève. The Language House propose des coachings d'anglais à Genève pour les particuliers et les entreprises, ainsi que des cours intensifs d'anglais dans les pays anglophones. Garry a été journaliste en Australie et en Asie, il a travaillé pour World Radio Switzerland.

3 réponses à “Problems, difficulties, dilemmas, enigmas, paradoxes and predicaments

  1. Very interesting !
    But you could also propose a discussion concerning the exact and subtle difference between difficult (difficulty), complex (complexity) and complicate (complication), wordings that are subject to very common confusion (at least in French)… aren’t they ?

  2. Hello Christophe,
    Interesting question!

    Something that is difficult is not easy to do, understand, or deal with: Talking to teenagers can be difficult for parents.

    Something that is complex has a lot of details: These rules are highly complex.

    If you say that something is complicated, you mean it has so many parts or aspects that it is difficult to understand or deal with: The situation in Lebanon is very complicated.

    So, difficult: not easy – complex: lots of details – complicated: difficult because of the many parts or aspects.

    Is that ok?

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