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Today's BBC News web page has this headline:

New era of five-yearly doctor checks starts

There's a word that means "five-yearly": quinquennial. It's probably too long for headline writers and too difficult for most readers, so I understand why it wasn't used, but shouldn't it have been five-year instead?

New era of five-year doctor checks starts

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    Huh. I thought "five-yearly" meant "five a year", but reading the article makes it clear that it's "once every five years". Am I the only one who made this error?
    – nneonneo
    Oct 20, 2012 at 23:45
  • No, that was my initial misunderstanding too.
    – user21497
    Oct 20, 2012 at 23:50
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    Murphy's Law for writers is Whatever can be misunderstood will be. Rewrite: New Era: Doctors checked every five years. Same number of characters. Oct 20, 2012 at 23:57
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    I make five yearly visits to my dentist, but only five-yearly visits to my cardiologist. The latter is, to me, quite clear thanks to the use of the hyphen. I certainly find such punctuated usage easier to understand than, say, words like biweekly and bimonthly. Oct 21, 2012 at 6:16
  • I read five-yearly checks as "checks happening once every five years", and five-year checks as "checks that are five years long each". Needless to say, I prefer the former.
    – RegDwigнt
    Nov 15, 2012 at 19:38

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It is just my opinion, but it is a poorly written headline. It really makes it sound like you now need to visit the doctor five times per year instead of a doctor being appraised once every five years. I'm from Canada by the way. When I looked at it my first thought was five per year, but then my logical brain took over and said that the writer did a bad job right after reading it. And a check of the article confirms this. :)

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A "five-year doctor check" would be one lasting five years. It can't help but bring to mind Star Trek's "five-year mission". :)

I know you were asking about British usage, but for what it's worth - "five-yearly" would probably be understood (albeit with some strange looks) in American English. An American paper would probably avoid the issue by making the headline more generic: "New Era of Doctor Visits Begins".

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  • Good points. My initial understanding was "five checks per year".
    – user21497
    Oct 20, 2012 at 23:48
  • Yearly (like leisurely; hourly) has a dual existence, of course, as an adverb and an adjective: He visits the doctor yearly. / He makes yearly visits to the doctor. It would seem to make sense that the compound five-yearly would also, but He visits the doctor five-yearly sounds distinctly off. coleopterist and Lynn explain the three different usages (five yearly...; five-yearly...; five-year...) clearly. Nov 15, 2012 at 20:57
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Quinquennial seems preferable to me, but if not using that word, how about fifth-yearly for a repeating period of five-year intervals?