Q&A: Biannual, bimonthly and biweekly

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we look twice at “bi”…

Q: Winter has arrived.
A: No it hasn’t. It’s still April.
Q: No, it was a Game of Thrones reference. The new series started again last week.
A: Oh of course; the frenzied anticipation seems to have become an annual event.
Q: Could be worse though – it could be a biannual event, so at least we don’t have to wait two years.
A: Ah, okay, we appear to have stumbled upon today’s topic.
Q: We have?
A: Yes, and this may cause “Ned Stark” levels of shock, but “biannual” should be TWICE a year; not every second.
Q: Have you lost your head? Surely not?
A: Well, both do get used, but that’s the preferred version.
Q: So what’s once every two years then?
A: “Biennial”.
Q: Oh okay.
A: Consider “ennial” as having a multiplier effect – i.e. centennial is every 100 years, quadrennial is every four years, etc.
Q: Seems a bit confusing.
A: Yes it’s almost as messed up as a Westeros wedding. You see, at some point “biannual” was accepted for BOTH twice a year or once every two years. Thankfully, we now have the preferred usage we just mentioned.
Q: Biennial = every two years. Biannual = twice a year.
A: That’s it. The confusion is of course with the prefix “bi” – as it can mean both “twice” and “two”.
Q: So, can you say “semi-annual” to avoid confusion?
A: Yes, as “semi” means half. But many writers may find that’s still a bit clunky, and often just stating “twice a year” is better.
Q: But wait, a bimonthly magazine? Is that twice a month or every two months?
A: It’s tricky, right? Based on the “bi” definition, it can be either. However, the “every two months” option is the preferred one in the publishing world. Six issues a year.
Q: And biweekly?
A: Again, the dictionary definition literally says both twice a week OR every two weeks. The recommended option is the latter. Macquarie Dictionary adds this usage note: “‘Biweekly’ traditionally means ‘every two weeks’ and ‘semiweekly’ meaning ‘twice a week’. But there is an occasional tendency, with consequent confusion, to take ‘biweekly’ to mean ‘twice a week’.”
Q: Okay, so a quick recap on the preferred methods?
A: Biannual = twice a year; Biennial = every two years; Bimonthly = every two months; Semi-monthly = Twice a month; Biweekly = every two weeks; Semi-weekly = twice a week.
Q: I think I’ll just avoid “bi” and “semi” altogether and use those “twice a year”-type meanings.
A: Fair enough.
Q: And one last thing – you used a hyphen in “semi-weekly” but Macquarie didn’t. What’s the go here?
A: You can use either for these adjectives, but just be consistent – don’t chop and change!
Q: Good advice. And speaking of chop, I’m off to rewatch the new episode. Want to join me?
A: Sorry, not really a fan of Game of Thrones.

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore this year? Email it to us today!


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