January 27, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: semi and bi & since

Posted in semi/bi, since at 5:53 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: The difference between bi and semi

A reader writes:

While I was discussing my K proposal with my mentor we came across the words, semiweekly and biweekly. In my proposal I meant to convey that a report to be generated once every two weeks (or twice a month). Which one I should use? We tried to look into the definitions and found conflicting answers.

Please advice.

What a great question. I think that everyone struggles with this now and then. I am going to give you an answer to this-actually, I am going to give you a couple of answers-but the very best way to avoid the dilemma of having to decide which prefix to use is to avoid the use of these prefixes altogether. If you plan on meeting twice a week, say that. If you plan on meeting every other week, say that. Even if YOU learn the technically correct way to use these prefixes, I guarantee that your reader won’t have, so it makes sense to say what you mean and avoid the confusion altogether.

Here is my first answer: TECHNICALLY, ‘bi’ means two, and if you do something on a ‘bi’ basis, you are doing it every two weeks or months or whatever unit of time you are talking about. TECHNICALLY, ‘semi’ means half, and if you do something on a ‘semi’ basis, you are doing it every half a week or month or whatever, so you are doing it twice a month or twice a week.

While the above answer is TECHNICALLY true, that’s not the end of it. Because, over time, while ‘semi ‘s’ meaning remained constant, ‘bi’ evolved to mean every two units of time OR twice a unit of time (e.g., every two weeks or twice a week ) according to several authorities. The result of this is that the prefix has become completely ambiguous, and nobody knows how frequently the episode occurs.

Because of this ambiguity, avoiding the prefix completely is your best bet.

Finally, to throw another wrench into the mix, there’s ‘biannual’ which only means twice a year, ‘semiannual,’ which also means twice a year, and ‘biennial,’ which mean every two years. My advice is to not think about it too much, and use expressions other than ‘bi.’

Tip 2: Since

A reader writes:

Can you please comment on the use of since? This morning on the news I heard:

“Good morning Pittsburgh. Be advised, since it has been snowing, the snowplows are out.”

Isn’t the correct usage of since a temporal (time sensitive) word… don’t you need a time cue?

Today’s the day for ambiguous expressions, I guess.

We’ve talked about this before (https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/since/), but it has been a while, and it’s time for a refresher on ‘since.’

‘Since’ can connote a sense of time, as the writer suggests:

Since you’ve been gone, I haven’t been able to eat or sleep.

Since we got back from vacation, I have been having a hard time squeezing into my regular clothes.

But it can also connote causality, and acts as a synonym to ‘because.’

Since I can’t go to school today, I think I will watch TV and eat ice cream.

I am going to walk to school today since the snow is making driving treacherous.

However, in certain contexts, the word is ambiguous and you can’t tell if it is being used in a temporal or causal sense. As a result, it should never be used in our formal writing. It’s fine for casual conversation, but in our medical/scientific writing, we are seeking precision, and ‘since’ is anything but precise.

Since the experiment was a success, John has been completely insufferable.

Has John been completely insufferable in the time after the experiment proved successful, or has he been completely insufferable because the experiment was a success?

It is this vagueness that makes ‘since’ inappropriate for our formal writing.

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