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April 29th, 2009

Triannual, biannual, biennial / on accident

by Barbara Wallraff

Adrian Rush, of Alexandria, Va., writes: “Someone who works with my wife asked me about the proper meaning of ‘triannual,’ and that got me thinking about the difference between ‘biannual’ and ‘biennial.’ I know the former means ‘twice a year’ and the latter means ‘every other year,’ but why? Is it just tradition? Is there a meaning inherent in ‘annual’ versus ‘ennial’ that gives each word its particular meaning?”

Dear Adrian: English isn’t as orderly as that. These words came to us from Latin, though, and Latin is orderly. So, sets of words properly derived from it tend to match -- for instance, “millennial,” “centennial,” “quadrennial,” “triennial,” “biennial.” English-speakers with a firm grasp of Latin have been using “biennial” to mean “every two years” since the 1600s. People with a less firm grasp recombined the Latin roots in the late 1800s to get “biannual.” But inventing this word so that it could mean “twice a year” was doubly a mistake, because “bi-” means “two,” not “half.”

All that’s history, of course. As you say, “biannual” does mean “twice a year” -- although, according to dictionaries, it also can mean “every two years.” This ambiguity often leads to confusion. In a recent Washington Post story, for example, the word “biannual” is like a tiny pop quiz on current events, testing your knowledge of how often the World Bank and the IMF meet: “Speaking at the close of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund biannual meetings in Washington yesterday, Mexican Finance Minister Agustin Carstens warned ...”

OK, the organizations meet twice a year, and news sources including The Washington Post in other stories indicate that with “semiannual.” “Semi-” is the Latin root that means “half,” and “semiannual” is the Latin-literate way to say “every half year,” or a year.” May I encourage you to adopt that unambiguous word? As for “triannual,” I’d suggest substituting the humdrum but clear wording “three times a year.”

Cheryl L. Spencer, of Old Town, Maine, writes: “Growing up, I learned that the expression to describe an action that was done unintentionally was ‘by accident.’ Recently, I have heard ‘on accident’ being used for this, apparently following the pattern of ‘on purpose.’ I thought at first that it might be a regional usage or a misuse. Then I heard it used on a television network situation comedy. Have I missed this expression all these years, or is it a neologism?”

Dear Cheryl: The people who’ve been saying “on accident” all along are young children still learning the language and nonnative speakers. What’s new is that native speakers over the age of, say, 10 also are doing so. This reminds me of what happened to “fun” 15 or 20 years ago: Grown-ups thought of the word as a noun and said things like, “That was so much fun,” but younger people started thinking of it as an adjective and said things like, “That was so fun!” (The noun use, by the way, is still better form.)

“On accident” is a recent and uncommon enough invention that most usage guides haven’t gotten around to warning against it. Nonetheless, “by accident” is definitely the standard form.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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