Nope, this isn’t a rant that will happen biweekly (whenever that is), but a guest post on the word biweekly from the inimitable Anna.
Biweekly, along with its equally annoying word companions bimonthly and biannually, are some of the more frustrating and functionally useless words in the English language. Neither common usage nor dictionary definitions settle whether biweekly occurs twice a week or every second week. Clearly, this can make a significant difference.
If a person agrees to a biweekly fee of $10 it matters a great deal whether her yearly total is $1040 or $260. Similarly, if my employer expects me to undergo a bimonthly review then it is in my best interest to know exactly how many times—and when—I need to be on my best behaviour.
Part of my annoyance with the ambiguity of the word comes from people’s insistence that “the meaning” (read their preferred meaning) is clear—just read the comments on this subject over at Pain in the English and you’ll see how vehement people can be. The problem is that it is easy to make a case for either interpretation.
Merriam-Webster defines biweekly (adjective) as:
1: occurring twice a week
2: occurring every two weeks
Hmm. What about the etymology—will that help to clear things up?
In short – no. The prefix bi- means:
1 a : two <bilateral> b : coming or occurring every two <bicentennial> c : into two parts <bisect>
2 a : twice : doubly : on both sides <biconvex> b : coming or occurring two times <biannual>
Here the “every two” (1a) and “two times” (2b) still leaves us guessing as to whether we ought to look for a second job to pay our fees and if we ought to dress extra-nicely for work this week. In the usage part of this definition, Merriam-Webster informs us that the “ambiguity has been in existence for nearly a century and a half and cannot be eliminated by the dictionary.” Our remedy, they suggest, is to “leave some clues” so that the context is clear.
Instead, I prefer to forsake biweekly and its companions. I would like to suggest using one of the two following terms (as appropriate, of course).
Semi- is far clearer and means:
b: half in quantity or value : half of or occurring halfway through a specified period of time.
Less common, and decidedly British, a fortnight is literally “every fourteen days.”
If my employer tells me that I can have a morning coffee for a fortnightly fee of $10 then I may decide that the convenience is worth my $260 a year. If, on the other hand, she wants a semi-weekly fee of $10 then I will more likely decide that for a yearly cost of $1040 I would do well to wake up five minutes earlier, brew my own coffee, and arrive with a thermos.
And, of course, you could always take the few extra words required and specify “every second week” or “twice a week.” With these few extra syllables you can eclaircize the context and ensure that people won’t have to grubble for your meaning.
And besides, biweekly isn’t even a valid Scrabble word.