I freely admit that I’ve been doing it the wrong way. For years, I’d wish someone a ‘happy belated birthday’ if I was a day or two late.
Facebook has been iffy lately on reminding me about birthdays in my friends list. Sometimes, it lets me know right away, but over the past few weeks, I’ve gone days without that little notification. If I realize that I have missed wishing someone a happy birthday on their birthday, I’ll go to their profile and wish them a “Happy Belated Birthday.”
This tends to get people really riled up these days. Even grammar enthusiasts like me sometimes get simple grammar points wrong. None of us is perfect, after all.
So what’s the problem?
It turns out that it’s a very simple problem. If you think about it, the criticism makes perfect sense. It’s just that most of us don’t make time to think about it.
It comes down to this: Phrased that way, belated is in the wrong place. It should be before happy, not after.
No, I’m not joking. But the error is so widespread that if you go to Twitter and search for “Happy Belated Birthday,” you’ll find post after post. People wish friends of theirs, relatives, even celebrities a “HBB” without thinking twice. This only earns the ire of the grammarians out there for whom the phrase sets off their alarms the same way using due to in place of because of sets off my own.
So let me explain. Belated, of course, is a more formal adjective than late. But they mean the same thing.
But the birthday itself wasn’t late. (It wasn’t belated, for that matter.) The birthday came right on schedule, falling on the same date it falls on every single year. Just like clockwork. It’s funny how birthdays always arrive on time, whether we’re ready for them or not.
It wasn’t the day that came later than it should have. It was the wish for a happy one that came later than it should. In fact, the “Happy Birthday” part — if it’s belated — came after the birthday was already over.
So when we fail to acknowledge one’s birthday on that important date, we should be wishing people a “belated happy birthday.”
See? I told you it was simple.
But to folks like Lucie Frost, reversing the belated and happy can be a problem worthy of fighting with a public service announcement.
To the people who are similarly angered by those of us who have phrased it incorrectly all these years, I promise this: I’ll do my best to say “Belated happy birthday” provided you take equal pains to write “because of” and not “due to.”
Do we have a deal?