When you’re writing about a recurring event, does biennial mean that it would happen every two years or twice every year? Let’s clear up the confusion over a grammatical terrible two.
Recently, while spending time with my parents, my dad asked me a question as he was working on an email newsletter for his artists’ group. He wanted to know whether biennial meant every two years or two times in the same year.
I seemed to remember from my early English class days that there was a word that could mean either one. That never made sense to me because it seemed like you’d have to then write a lot more to explain which you meant, when there ought to be one distinct word for each possibility.
The other word in this equation is biannual.
So let’s sort through this “terrible twosome.”
We know, first off, that the Latin prefix bi- means two, or in this case, twice. We also know that annual comes from the Latin annus, which means a year.
You’d think, then, that since biannual would translate to “two years,” it’d mean “every two years.” And you’d be wrong.
Biennial is a composite of those same Latin routes that formed the Latin word biennium, which refers to a two-year period. Biennial originally meant “lasting for two years,” in the 1600s, but by 1750, it had also come into use as meaning “every two years.” Think of it this way: someone who serves in office for two-year stints would have a “biennial” term of office because the term lasts two years. So the election for that role would then be “biennial” because it happens every two years.
Biannually, as of about 1837, when it was first recorded in English, means happening two times (bi-) within the same year (-annis).
How do you remember it?
I had the perfect mnemonic worked out to make it so easy…until I realized that it actually had the words backwards. Curses! Foiled again!
No one said English is easy, you know.
The best bet would be to remember that annual in biannual means one year. So something that’s biannual would be happening twice within the same year.
I liked my other idea so much better, but I’m not going to explain it because it’d only confuse you and this pair of words is more than confusing enough as it is!
Your best bet, given the potential for confusion for your readers, would be to find another way to say it. Yes, I hate to suggest ditching these two perfectly good words, but since some won’t know whether you mean every two years or every six months, they’d probably appreciate it if you spelled that out somewhere in what you’re writing!