A Midsummer’s Musing on Miscellany



Our regular readers might note that our study of American English periodically includes smaller but still noteworthy items we collect from research and reader correspondence.

It’s been several months since our last musings on miscellany, so we thought we’d return for more as we approach midsummer 2020. (To review miscellany from the past two years, see the links at the end of this article.)

Bi- vs. Semi-

The debate over bi- and semi- continues, more so as guidelines for usage have softened and blended. The two prefixes tend to confuse especially when paired with statements of time.

Many dictionaries put forth that biweekly means both twice a week and every two weeks. The Careful Writer author Theodore M. Bernstein likewise expresses that “biweekly means every two weeks, and sometimes something else: twice a week.”

Bernstein also declares that “bimonthly means every two months and nothing else.”

The Associated Press Stylebook specifies that biannual means twice a year and is a synonym for semiannual (for every two years, use biennial).

So what is a writer to do? Bernstein states that “life would be better if we used semi- to mean half and reserved bi- to mean two.”

For clarity and consistency, GrammarBook’s position aligns with Mr. Bernstein’s. The prefix bi- originates from the Latin meaning for two. When paired with a time word such as weekly, it means “every two” or “every other.” The prefix semi- comes from the Latin expression for half. When paired with a time word, it means twice.

Examples
The writer publishes her biweekly articles every other Thursday.
We pay our employees semimonthly on the 15th and the 30th.

Truth be told, the debate today need no longer carry on. Though dictionaries now allow for synonymous usage, writers who champion clarity and consistency can advance the cause with what we’ve defined.

Until such a uniform understanding exists, however, substituting the specific time for the adjective may be important to avoid confusion: The writer publishes her articles every two weeks instead of The writer publishes her articles biweekly.

Myriad

Myriad comes from Greek myrias, which comes from myrioi, meaning “countless” or “ten thousand.” We’re all familiar with a statement such as We have a myriad of ways to correct the problem.
 
It can make the prescriptivist cringe. No matter how many times we take up the topic, use of myriad as a noun only gathers force despite traditional grammar’s instruction to keep it an adjective, as in We have myriad ways to correct the problem.

The Associated Press Stylebook advises to use myriad as an adjective only, an edict we can agree favors efficiency. In our example above, myriad expresses the same thing as a myriad of with two fewer words.

When we delve further into grammatical justification, however, contemporary reasoning runs into an obstacle. Merriam-Webster online identifies that myriad as a noun has been in use since 1555; its approximate first use as an adjective was in 1735, 180 years later.

With that knowledge, and recognizing that dictionaries and the masses alike have welcomed myriad as a noun, we do not see that it must be avoided as such, though we prefer it as an adjective for economy.

Punctuation for National Abbreviations

We occasionally receive reader queries about whether national abbreviations (initialisms) require punctuation. The answer is that guidance for style will vary.

Both GrammarBook.com and AP prefer punctuation for national abbreviations (e.g., U.S., U.K., U.A.E.). The Chicago Manual of Style advises to spell out nations (United States, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates), and if they must be abbreviated, to omit punctuation (US, UK, UAE).

The United States military, which has its own style and vernacular for many English references, likewise omits punctuation when abbreviating nations.

Our stance is to apply that which we stated (use punctuation). If your overarching style directs otherwise, as always, aim to be consistent.

Links to past articles:
Exploring Some English Miscellany
More Mulling Over Miscellany
Mixing Miscellany Again

Posted on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, at 11:00 pm

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10 Comments on A Midsummer’s Musing on Miscellany

10 responses to “A Midsummer’s Musing on Miscellany”

  1. Steven Rosenberg says:

    Your example, “The writer publishes her biweekly articles every other Thursday” is a redundancy. If the writer publishes every other Thursday it is biweekly. You could have left “biweekly” out of the sentence without changing its meaning. On the other hand, if you left out “every other Thursday” the meaning would have lost important information.

  2. Margaret Ball says:

    If you like leaving out “a” and “of” when using the word “myriad,” why would you not also favor efficiency by leaving out the periods in abbreviations of nations’ names?

    • We lean heavily on the two leading reference manuals for American writers, the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, which express preferences for using periods and writing out country names, respectively. CMOS allows abbreviating without periods, if we must, which sounds like an allowance if one absolutely needs to conserve space. We prefer using periods to help avoid hearing the abbreviations become acronyms such as “uck” for United Kingdom (UK) or “us” for the United States (US).

  3. Mr Schuster says:

    For years I’ve seen British publications omit the period after Dr, Mr, and others. Will that be acceptable on this side of the pond at some point?

  4. Clark W. says:

    I look forward to receiving these entertaining — and informative — respites from my daily routine, and every once in awhile I get the urge to say thanks. So, thanks!

  5. Anne T. says:

    I thoroughly enjoy reading your articles on grammar. Having been employed by a small town weekly newspaper for years, I am very interested in the topics you cover (and am dismayed at how often your quizzes show me I have not mastered the language the way I’d hoped).

    Here is my question. I want to be assured that common misuses of certain words will NOT creep into dictionaries. I know it happens. Why else would “regardless” and “irregardless” both appear in dictionaries?

    The one that is particularly troubling to me is the constant misuse of the “ran” for “run.” For example: He has ran in that race before. I hear it commonly misused where I live, but then was dismayed to hear a congressman use ran with a helping verb when he was filmed for a news story.

    At least Spellcheck knows it is wrong and that gives me hope. But the written word and spoken word often do not match up.

    Thanks for being a sympathetic ear.

    • We empathize with you. Unfortunately, none of us can be assured that “common misuses of certain words will NOT creep into dictionaries.” Often even we must reread what The Chicago Manual of Style has to say:

        The best dictionaries are signaled by the imprints of Merriam-Webster, Webster’s New World, American Heritage, Oxford University Press, and Random House. But one must use care and judgment in consulting any dictionary. The mere presence of a word in the dictionary’s pages does not mean that the word is in all respects fit for print as Standard Written English. The dictionary merely describes how speakers of English have used the language; despite occasional usage notes, lexicographers generally disclaim any intent to guide writers and editors on the thorny points of English usage—apart from collecting evidence of what others do.

         
      Click the link to see what we wrote about regardless vs. irregardless some time ago.

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