Bi- Versus Semi-

Bifurcating Grammar

The God of Grammatical Bifurcation

It came up in conversation the other day about an argument one of my colleagues had with one of our Communications managers over the difference (or similarity, as she argued) between bi- and semi-. The context was some sort of miscellaneous report that needed to be put out twice a year. My colleague argued that “biannual” meant every two years, and the Communications manager argued that “biannual” meant twice per year, the same as “semiannual”. Apparently the discussion was quite heated, and my colleague, being in Finance, deferred to the vast knowledge of our Communications Department (keeping in mind these are the same people who have introduced CP to our organization and have thus added a sticky layer of ambiguity to all corporate copy).

I agreed with my colleague: biannual meant every two years, and semiannual meant twice per year.

Yet I felt compelled to check, as I tend to when confronted with some information that may prove my grammatical instinct wrong. I came across the following site: Grammarbook.com, and the following exchange, which I wanted to share with you. The strong emotions expressed by these commentators are not unlike my feelings on the Oxford comma and capitalization; I can appreciate having a violent reaction to grammatical abuse.

This quandry also suggests that given that bi- and semi- are often confused, it might be best to avoid these two prefixes (in this context), be less ambiguous, and specify to what you are referring (twice per year or every two years, etc…).

In the meanwhile, enjoy:

  1. Eric Havaby says:

    Anyone who actually says “I visit my aunt semimonthly.” should be taken out and shot!

    • Dante Picchioni says:

      That is a little extreme. Instead of shooting them, perhaps we could just torture them for a few hours, and then let them go.

      • Jeannette Jones says:

        Or perhaps just force them to read poor grammar or go to the mall and listen to people “conversate”!

        • Mark Harder says:

          Evolution of grammar is always to be expected. Some changes are trivial (“pleaded” now instead of “pled”). Others are offensive to value systems. The increasingly frequent use of “that” as the beginning of adjectival phrases referring to people (people “who”) as objects. The usage of “that” applied to people almost always stands out from the written page, an ugly unwanted interruption in my reading, to say the least.
          The confusion between bi- and semi- periodic could cause a potentially serious lapse in communication if, for example, one were to expect arrival on Thus. of an item that won’t be delivered until the week after next.

      • David Negley says:

        Tortured with cattle prods semi-hourly, no doubt. Every half hour on the dot.

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