What's the correct sentence?

  • Belated happy birthday!
  • Happy belated birthday!
  • 6
    -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, 2013 at 15:10
  • 2
    That is always the dilemma of the prescriptivist. It is the common expression because it is.
    – MetaEd
    Jan 12, 2013 at 16:36
  • 2
    @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 Jan 12, 2013 at 16:47
  • 4
    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" Jan 12, 2013 at 17:36
  • 5
    @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, 2013 at 4:56

7 Answers 7


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.
  • 1
    @user300672 I agree with you that 'belated H/happy B/birthday' is idiomatic and an accepted paraphrase of 'This is a belated card / wish signalling that I hoped that you would have a good day on your birthday'. See MetaEd's findings above. However, the answerer here seems not to like this analysis, and changing his answer to fit with your views is not permissible. It might even be illegal. Oct 15, 2016 at 21:44
  • @EdwinAshworth Thank you for protecting the gist of my original answer! :-)
    – TrevorD
    Oct 17, 2016 at 13:20

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

  • 1
    Or, "Happy belated birthday". That's just what people say sometimes.
    – J.R.
    Jan 13, 2013 at 5:02
  • 3
    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. Jan 14, 2013 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, 2013 at 16:42
  • 2
    @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. Jan 14, 2013 at 17:47
  • 4
    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, 2013 at 1:35

"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.


The perception that there is something paradoxical or nonsensical about belated happy birthday and its variants is due to taking happy birthday itself at face value, that is, as an expression of a wish that the addressee's birthday (one particular day) be happy. However, when people say happy birthday, their wishes are usually not specifically focused on that day. If they were, it would make much more sense to express such wishes in the morning, rather than the evening, when most of the day is already gone, but the latter is, in fact, far more common. The expression happy birthday, instead conveys vague wishes that the addressee's life generally go well, combined with the recognition of the birthday. If what is packed into happy birthday were made fully explicit, it would amount to something like: 'Noting that today is your birthday, and appreciating the significance of that fact, I wish you that your life go well in the future'.

There is nothing paradoxical about expressing such wishes with some delay. What is conveyed by a belated happy birthday message is something like: 'Noting that your birthday was a few days ago, and appreciating the significance of that fact, I wish you that your life go well in the future'.

Now, there may still be something syntactically puzzling about belated happy birthday in that belated in it seems to qualify birthday and it is unclear what that would mean (relative to what is the birthday delayed?). That puzzle can be resolved if we think of happy birthday analogously to thank you. It is generally accepted that the latter phrase can be used not only as an exclamation actually expressing thanks, but also as a noun phrase standing for something that expresses thanks. If somebody were to write 'Here is my belated thank you for . . .', we wouldn't have any problem understanding that thank you is used in the latter way, and that belated qualifies thank you as a whole. Similarly, when we receive a card saying belated happy birthday, we should think of belated as qualifying the whole of happy birthday, rather than just birthday.


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.


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."


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.

  • As you say, the birthday has gone: the birthday was not belated. It's the wishes that are belated.
    – TrevorD
    Oct 15, 2013 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, 2014 at 16:58
  • @Ajay Saying that some phrase usually people say doesn't make sense is out of scope for this forum. This is about English, not about your logic. Anyway, you are taking it too literally; by "happy birthday" people might mean they want the other person feel special, not necessarily happy and certainly not necessarily just on a specific date. Anyway, this does not answer the question. Jul 3, 2019 at 13:58

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