Oh, the dilemma!

Rock Hard PlaceI was recently asked by a friend about the difference between ‘choose’ and ‘decide’. She felt that ‘choose’ implied more personal agency and that ‘decide’ is what you do when you have less personal agency and you’re left with having to select between someone else’s choices. She asked this specifically with regards to how animals in captivity might be limited in their choice of opportunities, such as where they might like to rest. She told me that animals in the wild have a high degree of agency and choose from a wide range of opportunities such as exactly how much dappled light they might lie in. Confined animals have notably less options, often having to decide between sun or shade, inside or outside, the rock or the dirt. I love that these questions of word choice come up in the most interesting fields!

Anyway, my linguistics study, many moons ago, included the topic of semantics, where we had whole assignments on the difference between a cup and a mug, between happiness and joy. For those assignments we needed to look carefully at the evidence of how both these words are used, starting with definitions.

Macquarie has this for ‘decide’:

–verb (t) 1. to determine or settle (a question, controversy, struggle, etc.) by giving victory to one side. 2. to adjust or settle (anything in dispute or doubt). 3. to bring (a person) to a decision: *The appearance of the woman decided me at once –oliné keese, 1859. –verb (i) 4. to settle something in dispute or doubt. 5. to pronounce a judgement; come to a conclusion.

and this for ‘choose’:

–verb (t) 1. to select from a number, or in preference to another or other things or persons. 2. to prefer and decide (to do something): she chose to stand for election. 3. to want; desire.

Neither definition mentions agency, although ‘decide’ has more meanings that imply an external party.

After looking around a bit further, I think the word that conveys the lack of freedom of choice is ‘dilemma’. There are a number of different types of dilemma (including, but not limited to ‘ethical dilemma’), but the main definition is ‘a problem offering two possibilities, neither of which is unambiguously acceptable or preferable’.

The problem with ‘choose’ vs. ‘decide’ is that while ‘choose’ definitely conveys the possibility of two or more choices, it can equally be used to describe limited choices. We have a lot of expressions for this (from that wiki page linked to above): ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’; ‘Lesser of two evils’; ‘Between a rock and a hard place’, since both objects or metaphorical choices are rough; ‘Between the devil and the deep blue sea’.

But none of these tell us if we would use the verb ‘choose’ or ‘decide’ for them. For that we can go to ngrams, which track word and phrase usage over time. Here are the links to where I ran a couple of these.

  • lesser of’ shows ‘choose between’ on the chart; ‘decide between’ doesn’t even appear.
  • between the devil’ is the same.

If you accept that ‘between’ means that the choices are only two (and therefore limited), then you can run an ngram on ‘choose between’ and ‘decide between’, which shows that ‘choose between’ is far more common than ‘decide between’. All this suggests that ‘choose’ can be used even when agency is limited.

The other problem with putting ‘decide’ as the option where an individual doesn’t have agency is that while some of its meanings are about external authority, the meaning also specifically includes instances of personal agency. We also have positive connotations in English for that word; for instance, you might prefer to read a job application where the applicant describes themselves as decisive rather than indecisive. It has strong connotations of personal agency.

Also, ‘choose’ and ‘decide’ are in many instances interchangeable, and only in some instances not:

  • ‘humans choosedecide what possibilities are available and the animal must decidechoose which to utilise’
  • ‘animal had agency then it may choose [maybe interchangeable here? but less so] something completely different.’
  • ‘tripe or brains for dinner? I wouldn’t choose [can’t change this one] to eat either … I must decidechoose between what’s available’.

All of this makes me want to spend days gathering a ton of data from various corpora about exactly where these phrases are used and exactly how much agency is implied in every usage and do a comparison over time … but instead I will choose to keep going on my more immediate editorial tasks. Happy new year!

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