A timely reminder

A project can be completed on time, or in good time. But the nuances of “timely” aren’t always quite the same.

In fact, you’ll almost always sound more natural saying “on schedule” or “in good time” or some other such phrase. Except perhaps in a legalese context or register.

  • The word timely often has overtones of being at just the right moment, or only just in time. Perhaps serendipitously rather than as scheduled. Here’s an example:
    A train’s timely arrival might be just perfect for letting the heroine escape from the bad guys. Not just rolling up to the platform on schedule.
  • Similarly, untimely means at the wrong moment, unexpectedly. Not “late”. An untimely death is indeed (obviously) too early!
  • And of course, timely isn’t an adverb. So you can’t do something timely. (And on time is then much neater than in a timely manner or some such monstrosity.)

It’s a tricky one this, because the dictionary definitions mostly seem to include the “as scheduled” interpretation… sort of. But take it from me: it can sound clunky.

Prevalence: medium. The Dutch equivalent, tijdig, isn’t the world’s most common word.
Frequency: high. You’ll rarely see a Dutch writer using any of the alternatives above, for instance.
Native: yes, sometimes. American English seems to be a bit less nuanced than British about this particular word. And of course Eurospeak has adopted lots of such terms.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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