A Word, Please: Whatever seems right to you

Recently, a reader named Edward was perusing an online message board and paused at the word “biweekly.”

He’d heard it used countless times and never had a problem with it. Yet suddenly he found himself at a loss. Does it mean once every two weeks, he wondered, or can it mean twice per week?

The prefix “bi” means exactly what we think it means until we actually stop to think about it, at which point, it means nothing. Think about it. When people say they get paid biweekly, they mean they get paid once every two weeks. But when say they get paid bimonthly, they mean they get paid roughly every two weeks.

“I get paid bimonthly, the 15th and 30th of every month,” claimed a writer on an Internet message board, one of approximately 1,500 hits to turn up in a Google search for “I get paid bimonthly.”

In magazine publishing, “bimonthly” is universally meant as “every two months.” But their colleagues in newspaper publishing have long used “biweekly” to refer to a newspaper that comes out twice a week.

So someone must be using “bi” wrong. Surely it can’t have two contradictory meanings. And because we already have the prefix “semi” to mean “twice per,” clearly “bi” is left with the job of meaning “every two,” right?

If only.

“'Bi-'. This prefix, which was first used in contexts of time ('biweekly,' 'bimonthly,' 'biyearly,' etc.) in the 19th century, is a cause of endless confusion,” “Fowler's Modern English Usage” says. “Each compound can mean 'occurring or continuing for two,' 'appearing every two' or 'occurring twice a.'“

The dictionary definition for the prefix “bi” says it can have either meaning. And though both “biweekly” and “bimonthly” appear as words in some dictionaries, their definitions aren’t much help at all: “biweekly, adj. 1. happening every two weeks. 2. happening twice a week; semiweekly.” “bimonthly. adj. 1. happening every two months. 2. happening twice a month; semimonthly,” says the “American Heritage Dictionary.”

“Webster’s New World College Dictionary” isn’t quite as permissive: “biweekly. adj., adv. 1. once every two weeks 2. (now rare) twice a week: in this sense, semiweekly is the preferred term.”

Some usage experts try to push logic as law. For example, the “Associated Press Stylebook” and “Garner’s Modern American Usage” both say that “biweekly” is every two weeks and “semiweekly” is twice a week.

But those are just recommendations. Sensible they may be, that doesn’t make them true.

My favorite assessment of the “biweekly” and “bimonthly” conundrum comes from language expert Barbara Wallraff, who notes that “'bi-' is useless for making clear a rate of recurrence.”

“Perhaps the most irritating thing of all is that the writers who use these words almost always assume you know exactly what they mean,” writes “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage,” whose editors report having received letters from outraged readers accusing the publisher of shirking their responsibility to set things straight on the meaning of the prefix “bi.”

“The trouble is that it is much too late to set things straight,” the usage guide notes. “People have been using these words in two different meanings for quite some time, and now we all simply have to live with that fact.”

My advice: if you need to be sure you’re understood, I recommend avoiding “biweekly” and “bimonthly” altogether. Consider using “twice a week” or “every two weeks” instead. “Semimonthly” and “semiweekly” are both clear, too, even though they’re a little awkward.

Or you could just keep using “biweekly” and “bimonthly” in whatever way seems right to you. Despite all the controversy and complaints, these words still mysteriously manage to get their users’ meanings across.

If they didn’t, they would be long dead.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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