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A Word, Please: Whatever seems right to you

October 09, 2011

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.

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“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.”

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