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I'm Russian and in the Russian language we use one word if we want to say that something will happen later than it has been planned. So usually I have difficulty in choosing a proper word among postpone, delay and defer.

I understand they bear slightly different tinges of meaning but hitherto I have failed to catch this difference.

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Please, provide the Russian word. Some of us do speak Russian :) –  RiMMER Sep 12 '12 at 18:17
    
Well, it's 'отложить'. There's also a word 'задержать' but it's the Russian rather for 'detain'. –  krokoziabla Sep 12 '12 at 18:43
    
Hm, also we use the word 'переносить' but in my opinion it can fully substitute 'откладывать'. :-) –  krokoziabla Sep 12 '12 at 19:05
    
Also see #32069, “Fetched later/deferred and gotten now”, a sort of opposite question but might be helpful –  jwpat7 Sep 12 '12 at 19:48
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Отсрочить, отнести, отодвинуть, приостановить, передвинуть, перенести, отложить в долгий ящик, отложить на потом, and probably a dozen more. Wevs. Russian is a red herring anyway. There is a difference between the three English verbs, and we can explain it in English, and that's all that matters. –  RegDwigнt Sep 12 '12 at 19:48
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3 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

There is considerable overlap, but there are distinctions.

Postpone is voluntary, an action initiated by someone who has the authority to delay an existing plan. For example, "Jack decided to postpone the meeting until tomorrow. The game was postponed due to rain."

You can use delay pretty much anywhere you use postpone, but delay doesn't carry the same voluntary connotation. "I was delayed because of heavy traffic." Also, delay can be a noun. "The delay was unforeseeable."

Defer has a suggestion of being de-prioritized. It is a much less common synonym for postpone. It also implies that the action was initiated by someone who has the authority to delay an existing plan, except that the postponement occurred due to something beyond that person's control. For instance, you could possibly say "Jack decided to defer the meeting to a later date because the scribe was called up for jury duty."

While defer and postpone overlap, I think defer and delay do not so much. In other words, you can use delay in all these examples, but defer only fits where postpone also works.

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Postponed for a rain delay? –  Shog9 Sep 12 '12 at 19:32
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@Shog: A game could be delayed due to rain, but then possibly postponed if the rain didn't eventually yield to milder weather. Seems like you've pointed out another subtle difference: in some contexts delay is more short-term, while postpone is more long term. I'd say it like this, "After a 45-minute rain delay, the game was postponed until tomorrow." –  J.R. Sep 13 '12 at 0:23
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According to the comments, where you claim that you're looking for a proper substitution for отложить, you should definitely use postpone.

When you postpone something, you inform other people that a pre-planned event will happen at a later time/day than expected. Postpone isn't very negative word, as it's done in a timely manner.

However, delay/defer carry more negative connotations, as these actions aren't necessarily pre-planned and carefully executed. You delay a meeting by being late when stuck in traffic. That's negative. However, you can carefully postpone a meeting a few days in advance, if for example you're sick.

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Well, I was not totally correct saying that Russians content themselves with only one word and these two answers have proven this. The Russian word 'задерживать' pretty well matches delay in terms of time relations, not only detain. As to two other words postpone and defer I think now I understand the difference. Thank you very much. –  krokoziabla Sep 12 '12 at 19:40
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What about delayed payment terms in buyer-supplier agreements? What's the most common English word for a deferred / delayed / postponed payment that a manufacturer is obliged to pay to their supplier as soon as a certain time period passes after delivery? These payment terms are usually laid out in a supply contract, but I'm not sure which of the above listed words best suits this context.

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