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Context: We're discussing about how we used to get penalized in school for being late to classes, many years ago.

I wanted to say:

In my old school, it was hilarious to see my late friends get penalized.

Here, late friends is supposed to mean that they were not on time. But to me, it almost sounds as if I'm talking about my friends who are now deceased.

How else can I refer to a person who is late?

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Have you considered just rewording to something like "In my old school, it was hilarious to see my friends get penalized for being late?" This would remove the ambiguity you're worried about, and would also make it a little clearer that it was the lateness that led to the penalties. – user867 May 3 '13 at 5:10
@user867: Of course not! Otherwise I wouldn't have asked. Thanks! – Omega May 3 '13 at 5:31
Amusing question:1 – Georges Elencwajg May 3 '13 at 7:44
Late as in "the late Dentarthurdent"? – gmcgath May 3 '13 at 12:29
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Use a different adjective, like tardy or unpunctual. Or use a different construct, like

to see the late-comers penalized

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To my ear, your sentence is totally fine. 'Late' to mean 'deceased' is a much less common usage and no one is going to be confused.

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