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What's the correct sentence?

  • Belated happy birthday!
  • Happy belated birthday!
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-1 It depends on what has been "belated", the greetings or the birthday. Unless someone is celebrating birthday past the actual date of their birth, there would be no such thing as a "belated birthday". –  Kris Jan 12 '13 at 15:10
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Both are common, but "happy belated birthday" is far more common. Sources: Google Ngram Viewer, Google Search. –  MετάEd Jan 12 '13 at 16:09
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@MετάEd Hmm. Just did a google Ngram on that and it shows the reverse of what you're saying. Belated Happy Birthday is a lot more popular - tinyurl.com/becwmpv –  spiceyokooko Jan 12 '13 at 16:47
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Sorry @spiceyokooko, not in the US. Here you can easily buy greeting cards stating "Happy Belated Birthday", but you will not find one saying "Belated Happy Birthday" –  Kristina Lopez Jan 12 '13 at 17:36
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@spiceyokooko: You claim that "birthdays can't be late", but one could argue that birthdays can't be happy, either. (A person celebrating their birthday can be happy, but the date itself isn't happy). "Happy birthday," then, is just a concise well-wishing greeting, it means, "I hope your birthday is a happy day for you." In a similar way, "Happy belated birthday" simply means "I know this greeting is late, but I hope you had a happy birthday." I wouldn't read too much into the ordering of the words. –  J.R. Jan 13 '13 at 4:56
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6 Answers

I would favour the first, because a wish for one to have a happy birthday is possible, but a belated birthday is not, though the second suggests that you are wishing them happiness on their belated birthday.

A belated birthday celebration is of course perfectly possible, but I'd just say "happy birthday" in such a case.

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Well belated means behind date or late.

From Oxford English Dictionary:

belated, adj.

  1. Detained beyond the usual time, coming or staying too late; out of date, behind date.

So, if you're wishing someone a Happy Birthday which is late, you would use:

Belated Happy Birthday

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1  
Or, "Happy belated birthday". That's just what people say sometimes. –  J.R. Jan 13 '13 at 5:02
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J.R. Not in the UK or British English - it simply isn't used, in fact I've never heard of it being used like that before. It's the same for other greetings such as Happy Easter, Happy Christmas, if they're late, it's belated Happy Easter, not Happy belated Easter. But given this site tends to be dominated by Americans, I can see why they would prefer the unheard of version. –  spiceyokooko Jan 14 '13 at 11:18
    
I don't see any point in arguing about which is right and which is wrong, but I always find it interesting to learn about a new across-the-pond difference in usage. –  J.R. Jan 14 '13 at 16:42
    
@J.R. I'm not really arguing about which is right or which is wrong - I merely pointed out the one I'm most familiar with. However, I have noticed that the American dominance on this site seems to ensure that American English prevails whilst happily ignoring the fact that British English also exists. The whole world does not start and end at the West and East coast of America - something most Americans would do well to understand. –  spiceyokooko Jan 14 '13 at 17:47
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Methinks you're mischaracterizing the community. Many of our more prominant members (Barrie England, FumbleFingers, Colin Fine, Andrew Leach, to name a few) hail from somewhere other than the USA. Many of our members who do reside in the U.S. hardly seem like xenophobes or ignorant of English usage outside of North America (Peter Shor, JS Bangs and Martha come to mind). Sure, there are plenty of Americans who wonder what colours are, but I don't run across many of them on ELU. Maybe I'm misreading you, but you seem to be more bitter than this situation calls for. –  J.R. Jan 15 '13 at 1:35
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"Belated", of course, refers to something that has been delayed. From Merriam-Webster:

be·lat·ed adjective \bi-ˈlā-təd, bē-\ 1: delayed beyond the usual time 2: existing or appearing past the normal or proper time

So, to wish someone after their actual birthday, the best phrase in my opinion would be "Belated birthday wishes", because it's just your wishes that got delayed.

Among the two options yo've given, "Belated Happy Birthday" is more common in my part of the world than the other.

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A ‘Happy Birthday’ would mean- ‘May the day of your birth(current day), happy for you’. So wishing someone delayed, say after 5 days- ‘May your birthday that occurred 5 days ago, should have been happy’ ?? umm.. It does not make any sense. Delayed birthday wishes make no sense other than realizing our mistake. Your feelings are not outdated, anytime you wish, it’s fresh. So I feel, ‘Happy’ should be the first word whenever you wish. The day of birth has gone so ‘belated birthday’ So ‘Happy Belated Birthday.

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As you say, the birthday has gone: the birthday was not belated. It's the wishes that are belated. –  TrevorD Oct 15 '13 at 12:16
    
I presume that saying "Happy Birthday" will not actually cause someone to be happy on that day. So whether you say it the day before or a week later, so what? If you insist on a rational interpretation, you could say that you mean "I hope that your just-past birthday was happy" as opposed to "I hope that your upcoming birthday will be happy". –  Jay Feb 24 at 16:58
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Personally, I've used both versions. Nevertheless:

  • Belated birthday is nonsense, since the anniversary is the anniversary, and cannot be postponed even if the celebrations are.
  • Belated happy birthday, strictly, is also nonsense because the birthday has already gone and may or may not have been happy.

Therefore I would suggest something along the lines of:

  • Belated birthday wishes (as suggested in another answer)
  • Hope you had a Happy Birthday. Sorry I missed it / Sorry I'm late.
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A "birthdate" is always a specific date. It cannot be delayed like a dentist appointment. Just because you forgot or missed sending your greetings prior to and up to the actual date it has no bearing on the birth date. Your greetings are late or belated. Try to diagram the sentence "I wish you a happy belated birthday."

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