What a nightmare! (Words for difficult situations)

by Kate Woodford


Whether we like it or not, we all have to deal with things that annoy us or cause difficulties and stress. Sadly, it is part of life. This post won’t stop you from having to deal with these things, but it will at least give you a range of words and phrases for talking about them in English!

Let’s start with some single words that refer to different types of problem. A predicament is a bad situation that is difficult to get out of: She’s trying to find a way out of her financial predicament.

A dilemma is a situation in which you have to make a difficult choice between two different things: Now he has been offered the other job, which puts him in a bit of a dilemma.

Meanwhile, an ordeal is a very bad and unpleasant experience, especially one that continues for a long time. This word is usually used for serious events: The hostages’ ordeal came to an end when soldiers stormed the building.

We often experience difficulties in the early stages of doing something new. In UK English, we sometimes refer to these as teething troubles or teething problems: There were the usual teething troubles at the beginning of the project, but this is to be expected.

A juggling act, meanwhile, is a situation that is difficult because several different things must be dealt with at the same time. (People often describe the combination of working and being a parent as a juggling act.) My life’s a constant juggling act between home and work.

Some situations are difficult because, for whatever reason, it is impossible to make progress. For example, a dead end is a situation that has no hope of making progress: Negotiators have reached a dead end in their attempts to find a peaceful solution.

An impasse is a situation in which progress is impossible, especially because the people involved cannot agree: The dispute had reached an impasse, as neither side would compromise.

Stalemate, meanwhile, is a situation in which neither group involved in an argument can win or get an advantage and no action can be taken: The two countries appear to have reached (a) stalemate. (Note the collocating verb ‘reach’ that is often used with these three nouns.)

Moving on to some more colloquial expressions, something that causes you a lot of difficulties, often over a period, may be described as a headache: Getting a visa was a real headache. For things that are inconvenient and difficult or boring, we may use the informal expressions a pain (or a pain in the neck), or a drag:

I’ve got to take the documents to the office in person, which is a bit of a pain.

Filling in forms is such a drag.

Meanwhile, a nightmare is an extremely unpleasant event or experience: The journey back was a complete nightmare – the flight was delayed, Dan lost his luggage and both kids were sick.

Let’s hope the week ahead is free of difficulties and stress!

27 thoughts on “What a nightmare! (Words for difficult situations)

  1. Hi Kate,

    You’re doing an excellent job by focusing on everyday English with simplest explanations and examples – I wish you all the very best.

    However, I’m afraid, one thing that is not very common in your posts, or in most English writers’ post for that matter, is the language for expressing negative feelings (personal frustration/ romantic feelings/ sexual feelings/ wrathful feelings etc.).

    By negative feelings, I’m not talking about workplace expressions or polite replies, rather those that are used when you’re extremely annoyed at what somebody has done for you and so on – an instance where you are abused by someone, in precise. Although they’re marked as offensive or vulgar, such expressions are extremely commonplace and part of the language.

    The issue, however, isn’t just about their meanings, but massively about the applicability of them (i.e. when to use what). If a non-native speaker isn’t using any such expressions even at their extreme frustrated mood, that means they actually don’t have any idea of them: in other words, that doesn’t mean they are super cool even in such tough situations.

    The other area is to deal with romantic/sexual feelings. This is very important – in fact, is the paramount subject in a person’s life. A non-native speaker would normally find it very hard to express all of their romantic feelings to their loved ones in English.

    Today, you’ve touched part of what I’ve tried to tell by all the words above.

    It would be much appreciated if you could write more on these certainly common situations.

    I am sorry if I am taking up your precious time.

  2. Pingback: What a nightmare! (Words for difficult situations) | Editorials Today

  3. Hadeel Hammam

    The juggling act is my situation since I was born. It is the word that I have been searching for ages! now I know it thanks to you

  4. Ravibabu

    It is really useful. I request you to write about negative interrogative questions on this column.
    Thank you

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  6. Marianne Kelly

    What a disaster! An overused word that we use when we have “first world” problems – such as a mobile phone with no charge!

  7. sama

    Thanks a lot for your complete explanations.
    I really enjoyed it and help me how to use different words in different situations.
    I wish you all the best wishes.

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