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“Timely” or “On Time”?

I recently led a Better Business Writing class for a corporate tax department. It was a highly educated group–people with MBAs, master’s degrees in taxation, and other impressive credentials. I am happy to say that they were educated and sophisticated enough to realize that improving their business writing would increase their effectiveness. They were a delight to work with.

One thing about their writing troubled me. They used the word timely as an adverb, like this:

We filed that tax return timely.
The quarterly payments were sent timely.

In my experience as a business writer and reader, I had seen timely used only as an adjective:

You must make timely payments. [meaning “on time”]
That was a timely phone call. [meaning “opportune” or “well timed”]

So when I read the tax department’s writing in class, I stumbled over their use of timely. I wanted to change it to “on time” or “promptly.” Yet they assured me they were correct–that their use of timely was standard in their field.

Were the members of the tax department correct? Can timely be used as an adverb?

Yes, they were correct. Consulting my American Heritage College Dictionary, I learned that timely is also an adverb meaning “in time” or “opportunely.”

Once again, a reference book settled an issue. When you have disagreements about word usage, grammar, and punctuation, don’t argue. Don’t stew about them. Just check an up-to-date dictionary, style manual, or reference book.

Along with a current reference book, use common sense. If neither you nor anyone in your group has heard or seen a particular word used in business writing, don’t use it. I mention this caution because my dictionary shows another word that apparently means timely just below the timely entry on the page.

The word? Timeous, an adjective. The adverb form is timeously. Not even a tax department, filled with MBAs and statistical wizards, would use those forms. Of that I am certain. But if you doubt me, do an informal survey.

Timeous anyone?

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

9 comments on ““Timely” or “On Time”?”

  • I realise that this is a very old post, but I came across it when I was searching for the reason why the word ‘timeous’ was always underlined by my spell checker. I thought you might be interested to know that we use it fairly regularly in formal writing in South Africa (we generally follow the British style of English). The document I’m currently working on reads that my company “requires timeous notification of …”

    Thanks for a great site by the way, I am a huge fan of correct grammar. I only hope that I achieve it most of the time.

  • Hi, Ruth. Wow! Thank you for that useful piece of information. I had no idea “timeous” was used anywhere on earth.

    I am glad you like the site. Thanks for commenting.


  • I ran into another post in my current search before correcting what I thought was an erroneous occurrence of timely used as an adverb, that points out timeous and timeously are also used commonly in the UK, and specifically by the Scottish it said.

  • Even more specific than “Scottish” :-
    Timeous and timeously derive from the form of Medieval English once spoken across southern Scotland. While the East coast (i.e. Edinburgh) of Scotland has gradually adopted more anglicised vocabulary, the terms remain prevalent on the West coast (i.e. Glasgow) particularly in semi-official documents (eg. public sector). Personally I would always use “timely” (I’m an East-coaster), though that choice sometimes leaves me stuck for an appropriate adverb.
    I’m amazed that the usage also exists in South African English and can’t help wondering at the derivation.

  • My 1975 Webster’s “under-the-bridge” dictionary says that timely as an adverb is ‘archaic,’ so it’s probably not any less archaic 35 years later.

    Clearly, some accountant started using ‘timely’ as an adverb because he thought he knew more about the language than he actually did. Most likely, all he really knew was that “adverbs end in L-Y.”

    It would be excellent if Lynn saw this comment and commented in return.

  • Hi, Dave. Both my current (2009 and 2010) dictionaries are fine with “timely” as an adverb meaning “in time,” “on time,” or “opportunely.”

    Both of them label the word as “archaic” when it means “early” or “coming too early, premature.”


  • The IRS uses “timely” as an adverb: “You failed to timely file your personal tax return.” Some dictionaries may call it archaic, and to my ears it still sounds odd, but it is definitely making a comeback in American legal circles.

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