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If you’ve been near an airport this summer there’s a good chance that you’ve come across the English word ‘DELAYED’ at some point. Delays seem to be a fact of personal and professional life these days, but this is dangerous territory if you have to do business with English-speakers. We are legendarily obsessed with punctuality (‘late’ is a synonym of ‘dead’ in English…) so it’s useful to know the linguistic tricks we use to attack the delays of others and defend (or hide) our own.

Being DELAYED and getting HELD UP

A delay means that something is late and that’s never good in English. Delays are accidental and unplanned and they generally require an apology and some kind of explanation if you’re giving the news to a customer. A delivery can be delayed or held up without much difference, but you don’t consciously delay a product launch or a meeting unless you’re prevaricating. If you keep delaying a decision, you’re finding excuses that “stop” you from deciding. If, however, you postpone your decision, you are wisely waiting until you have the necessary information …


A postponement is a different beast to a delay. If you postpone something, or put it off (again without much difference), you decide in advance and with the agreement of all interested parties that it’s better to do something later (‘later’ is a much more innocent word than ‘late’ for native speakers…). Football matches might be postponed due to the weather (they could be delayed if the referee arrived late) and your evaluation might be postponed because your boss is off sick.

Sorry I’m late…

The bottom line is that you have to use the word ‘delay’ with care in English, but if you’re the one taking

responsibility for lateness in front of an angry customer, it’s best to be honest and recognise the situation for what it is. State frankly (with apologies) that the job is late, but then you can at least defend yourself modifiers: if something is only going to be a bit late or slightly delayed, it doesn’t sound so bad.These diplomatic touches should normally buy you enough time to sort the problem out, but for extreme cases, my next blog will cover tactics for announcing and explaining delays and other bad news in English. I hope it won’t be useful, but…

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