As I am reading books and articles, I come across this bona fide. How do you pronounce this? How do you use it properly?

I know the definition is in good faith, like if you are welcomed to someone's house, the guests are in good faith welcome around the house and not expected to steal anything, or when you test drive a car, it's in good faith you won't run off with it.


The most common pronunciation in America rhymes with "gonna hide". The Latin pronunciation is more closely approximated by rhyming with "phone a free day". More technical pronunciation help can be found in the guides referenced by others. The main time I have heard people use the latter, Latinate pronunciation is when the term is used in the plural, as in "so-and-so has established his bona fides" (which, it should be noted, is an improper Latin plural, but it's how we say it in English).

The meaning is "in good faith" or "genuine", as you said.


Webster's provides audio for two pronunciations that match my experience. (Removed non-standard pronunciation guides based on the comments.)

The most common usage in my experience is as a synonym of "genuine." All of the examples in the Webster's definition match this meaning:

  • She has established her position as a bona fide celebrity.
  • His latest record was a bona fide hit.
  • They have a bona fide claim for the loss.
  • 1
    THAT IS NOT IPA What’s that in proper IPA? I have no idea how to read that sort of thing.
    – tchrist
    Feb 1 '12 at 23:44
  • 1
    @tchrist see merriam-webster.com/pronsymbols.html . The pronunciation systems differ a lot from one dictionary to other
    – Theta30
    Feb 2 '12 at 0:04
  • 2
    @Theta30 No no no. You misunderstand the entire purpose of the Iɴᴛᴇʀɴᴀᴛɪᴏɴᴀʟ Pʜᴏɴᴇᴛɪᴄ Aʟᴘʜᴀʙᴇᴛ. It’s standard. Please use internationally recognized, standard transcriptions, not silly and meaningless provincial ones. Narrow phonetic transcriptions go in [brackets], while broad phonemic transcriptions go in /slashes/. And nothing goes in ** \backslashes\ **, which are typographic abomination — amongst others.
    – tchrist
    Feb 2 '12 at 0:09
  • I agree. Only American dictionaries use this system, because Noah Webster invented it before phonetics was discovered in the West, and because they think Americans are too stupid to use the IPA. They are, unfortunately, correct. Feb 2 '12 at 0:15
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    The pronunciations given above, in Kenyon & Knott's phonemic transcription, are respectively /'bonəfayd, 'banəfayd, bonə'faydi, bonə'faydə/. To which I would add the correct Latin pronunciation /bonə'fide/. Feb 2 '12 at 0:20

This is an expression whose meaning, I feel, might best by explained by illustration. We cannot say that it means 'in good faith' and then insert it into a sentence. It is an adjective that, in my eyes and experience, goes a bit further than saying 'in good faith'.

If I were to read, 'a bona fide complaint', I would personally take that to mean, 'a bona fide complaint as opposed to a dodgy/shifty/fraudulent/etc. one'.

So if we are talking about a bona fide purchaser, we would be talking about an honest/genuine/legitimate purchaser as opposed to, for example, a fraudster.

e.g. 'If we can establish that they are bona fide purchasers, they will be able to keep the house.'

'Bona fide' was originally a legal phrase. In its legal sense, this example refers to a decision made honestly/genuinely/legitimately as opposed to, for instance, one made corruptly.

e.g. 'The Court concluded that the Minister's decision was bona fide.'

Note that the words 'honestly', 'genuinely' and 'legitimately' are used to illustrate the phrase's meaning rather than to define the phrase itself. In a legal context (and this is the context by reason of which I am quite familiar with the phrase), the definition of bona fide may vary among different jurisdictions and among different areas of law. Ultimately, the meaning of the phrase (in the legal context) will depend on the legal test used (in that particular jurisdiction or area of law) to decide whether or not something or someone is 'bona fide'.

I have seen 'bona fide' used also as an adverb e.g., 'Provided that the contract was made bona fide, we stand a good chance in court.' (Me --> as opposed to a contract that was not made bona fide). I have just learnt that the phrase was initially an adverb and that centuries of poor usage resulted in its modern use as an adjective.

Briefly, the phrase 'bona fides' is a plural noun, with a comparable definition to that of its singular adjectival form i.e. 'bona fides' means good faith as well as honesty, genuineness and legitimacy. A lawyer might say to his/her junior, for example, 'Have you checked the bona fides of that contract yet?' The junior might reply to the lawyer, 'Absolutely, the contract is bona fide' - and there we have our adjective 'bona fide'!

Finally, notice that I just said, 'bona fides means good faith...' Bona fides is a plural noun but I used a singular verb. I did this instinctively but I thought I should check the point to make sure that the use is correct. It seems that you can use a singular or plural verb with 'bona fides' - http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/bona+fides.

  • You write: ‘Bona fides is a plural noun but I used a singular verb.’ I don’t see how that can be correct. For fides to be plural, bona would have to be plural, but that would make fides neuter. And it isn’t; nom sg fidēs, gen sg fideī, is feminine, from the 5th declension (like diēs, diēī, although the gender there was both m/f at times). If fides were in the plural as you wrote, the phrase would have to be bonae fidēs to give bonus fem pl concordance, and it’s not. So I rather think that in Latin, bona fidēs must be a feminine plural in the nominative case.
    – tchrist
    Feb 3 '12 at 12:32
  • I take your point as I have studied European languages and I know exactly what you're saying! For right or for wrong, if we were to accept that 'bona fides' is plural and that, arguably (as this point requires further investigation), it doesn't matter whether it takes a singular or plural verb (I've just used 'is') then, in practice, it wouldn't really matter whether we call it singular or plural. I think you've raised a great point though and that's what I love about language - it gets you thinking and when you think you've understood something there's something further to be understood.
    – Rachel
    Feb 4 '12 at 17:48
  • Ug, my last line should been that bona fidēs must be a feminine singular in the nominative case. The only way for bona to be plural is for it to be neuter, but that can’t be true because fidēs is feminine, so bona must be feminine, and so must the whole thing has to be singular.
    – tchrist
    Feb 4 '12 at 18:41

I want to clarify a few points raised in comments about etymology, which are relevant to the various senses and usage.

The earliest English expression is bona fide, derived from the Latin phrase meaning 'in good faith'. The Latin bonā fidē is in the singular ablative case, which is where the 'in' of 'in good faith' comes from. Originally, it was used as an adverbial phrase (as it would be in Latin). But by the 18th century, English writers started using it as an adjective to mean 'acting in good faith', eventually expanded to mean something like 'authentic' or 'legitimate'.

In the 19th century, the noun form bona fides (which is the nominative singular bona fidēs -- note the absence of the long vowel at the end of bona) came to be used in legal terminology, meaning literally 'good faith'. For example, one might say in that older usage: "His bona fides is not under question." (In the 19th century, the last syllable here would have been pronounced '-deez', according to English Latin customs of the time.)

But the final 's' tempted people with less knowledge of Latin to assume the noun was plural, a tendency apparently first noted in Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926). Coupled with frequent usage of bona fides to refer to evidence or authentic documents in legal use, this probably led to the new sense of 'credentials'. In the newer usage, most people would say: "We examined her bona fides before offering her the job." This newer meaning is generally analyzed as plural and takes a plural noun ("her bona fides were examined"), despite the conflict with the original Latin singular number.

The final 'e' has now often become silent as well. Those who continue to pronounce the 'e' may adopt a pseudo-classical Latin, with the second word sounding like the phrase 'FEE days', rather than traditional English Latin 'FIE deez'.

To sum up the pronunciation:

  1. If you're a "normal" American (possibly some Brits?), you rhyme fide with 'tide' (/ˈboʊnə.faɪd/) and fides with 'tides'. However, if you say it this way, you risk being viewed as uneducated by some Latin snobs.
  2. If you're an educated American who wants to sound pretentious or show off a somewhat imprecise knowledge of Latin (or perhaps a somewhat less educated Brit), you say fide as 'FEE day' and fides as 'FEE days'. (This pronunciation is close to modern Italianate "Church Latin." I say "imprecise" because most people saying it this way are trying to imitate classical Latin, rather than English Latin -- see pronunciation 3 below. However, classical Latin would pronounce the 'i' as short, not long. But I've never heard anyone say it like that in English. Some people do say bona more like 'BAW nah' rather than 'BONE uh'; the former is somewhat closer to classical Latin, while the latter is probably more common.)
  3. If you're an older American lawyer who came from the Ivy League, a well-educated Brit, or just really old-fashioned, you say fide as 'FIE dee' (rhymes with 'tidy') and fides as 'FIE deez' (rhymes with 'tidies'). If you say it this way (the traditional English pronunciation), many people will stare at you in confusion.

Despite the modern analysis of bona fides as plural, it is still rare to find reference to a singular bona fide in the sense of a single 'credential'. Some style guides declare this to be non-standard. Although Fowler made note of such a possibility in 1926, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994) declared that they were not able to collect an appearance of this singular use "in the wild."

On a final note: Because of the disparities in meaning and number (not to mention pronunciation), Garner's Modern American Usage recommends that it be considered a "skunked term" for educated speakers and therefore should be avoided. No matter how you use it or pronounce it, you may offend or confuse some of your audience. Of course, in traditional legal discourse, it may be impossible to avoid entirely.

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