The Challenge of Using “Challenging”

Photographing a newborn can be a challenge (for the photographer AND the baby)
Challenge is a misused and misunderstood English word.

It is not uncommon for me to hear a student say enthusiastically,

“We must challenge!”

Huh?*  I think the intention of this rally cry* is, “We must fight!,” or “We must overcome!”

The problem with my students’ cheer is that the verb challenge requires an object, it’s a transitive verb.  We can challenge authority, old ideas, our imagination, and even ourselves and each other!  Things are challenged. We cannot simply “challenge.”

Let’s compare challenge as a noun and as a verb.

Challenge as a noun

There are several ways challenge can be used as a noun.

As in the caption beneath the picture above, when something is described as being a challenge, it means it will require a lot of effort and/or skill.  Obstacles can also be called challenges.

Examples: ♦ The TOEFL* test is a challenge (especially if you don’t prepare beforehand)., ♦ A traveler’s first challenge is to find safe and affordable transportation from the airport to the hotel.

When someone is described as being or presenting a challenge, it means that person is difficult to get along with, or manage.

Example: ♦ “Our new employee is going to be a challenge.”

A challenge can also be a  rally cry.

Challenge Sept. 12, 1962
President John F. Kennedy’s Challenge

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy encouraged Americans to land a man on the moon and bring him safely back. Inspiring a common goal is often called giving a challenge. (Click here for more about John F. Kennedy’s Challenge to the Nation).

The adjectives: Challenging, and Challenged

We often use the word challenging  instead of  the phrase being a challenge.  For example, the sentence, “The TOEFL test is challenging,” means the same as, “The TOEFL test is a challenge.” Likewise, instead of, “Our new employee is going to be a challenge.” I could say, “Our new staff member is going to be challenging.”  

Note: We can’t always make this substitution. In the sentence, “A traveler’s first challenge is to find safe and affordable transportation from the airport to the hotel,”  we can’t use challenging since we are focusing on a specific challenge.

Test yourself!  Look at the caption under the picture of the crying baby again.  Can you rewrite it using challenging instead of a challenge?  (The answer is in the My Take On It  section at the bottom of this post).

Additionally, challenged can be used to indicate a disability or something that is lacking. For example: Visually challenged means a visual impairment. Please note, when talking about people with disabilities it is rude to describe a person by their disability. I will be writing about how to talk about disabilities, as part of my “Tough Topics” series soon. In the meantime please check out the state of Washington’s, Guide to Disability Etiquette and Using Respectful Language in the Workplace.

Challenge as a verb

Using challenge as a noun or adjective is fairly simple.  The real challenge (meaning difficulty) is using challenge as a verb.

Think about John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the nation again.  A person who is giving a challenge is “challenging others to do something.” It means to encourage others to take action. We can also challenge systems and organizations.  One of my students said,

“I’d like to challenge the current system to become unprejudiced towards Japanese women.”

Her sentence uses challenge correctly. She is saying she wants to push the system to change.

Another student asked if he could challenge his appointment at the consulate.* Answer: No. He was trying to express that he wanted to try to meet with a consular officer earlier than his appointed time.  He could have said, “It might be challenging/a challenge to be seen early at the consulate, but I’m going to try.”

A third student said she would like to challenge business in the US.  Again, no. This idea doesn’t make sense in English.  She was trying to say that she wanted to accept the challenge of doing business in the US.

Not all nouns can be paired with the word challenge.  Let’s look at several examples and definitions of challenge as a verb from Webster’s online Learner’s Dictionary:

challenge 1

challenge verb definition 2

There are three primary uses of challenge as a verb:  1. to question the authority or validity of a person or thing (definitions one and two), 2. to confront someone, or dare someone to compete (definitions two, four, and five), and 3. To challenge someone’s imagination, or be challenged by something or someone is to be pushed, i.e.,  to be encouraged to accomplish something which is difficult (definition three).

Before using challenge as a verb... Click To Tweet, Do you want to express the idea of questioning someone/something, confrontation, or being pushed by someone/something?  And, do you have a subject which is challenging or being challenged by an object?

Things which can be challenged:
Grandkids challenging
My grandkids challenging my patience

Use #1: truth, decisions, statements, rules, reports, results, research, outdated ideas or methods

Use #2: authority, decisions, assumptions

Use #3: minds, imagination, ability, things requiring any skill (athletic, intellectual, dexterity. language, concentration/focus, any skill)

Use #4: “challenge (someone) to a___”: fight, or competition (anything where someone has to prove themselves)

Use #5: people we suspect of not being authorized (intruders, uninvited guests, those who appear too young to purchase or consume alcohol or tobacco, etc).

My Take On It  Michele MVE 02 Icon 80 Percent JPEG

Quiz: How can you replace the noun “a challenge” with the adjective “challenging” in the caption above? Answer: Photographing a newborn can be challenging. (If you used another variation of “photographing” such as “taking pictures,” or “snapping photos,” your answer is also correct).

Famous quotes about Challenges:

Accept the challenges, so you may feel the exhilaration of victory.
George S. Patton

Dreams can often become challenging, but challenges are what we live for.
Travis White

I wanted to be scared again… I wanted to feel unsure again. That’s the only way I learn, the only way I feel challenged.
Connie Chung

It’s always the challenge of the future, this feeling of excitement, that drives me.
Yoshihisa Tabuchi

To be tested is good. The challenged life may be the best therapist.
Gail Sheehy

Famous Challenges (calls to action):

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
Harry S. Truman

Life is a song – sing it. Life is a game – play it. Life is a challenge – meet it. Life is a dream – realize it. Life is a sacrifice – offer it. Life is love – enjoy it.     Sai Baba

For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.  2 Timothy 1:7 NIV

 Blessings,    Michele