- Posted by Stephen Whiteley
- On 02/09/2012
- British English, English, etymology, Linguistics, words
“Their work is timely, accurate and cost efficient.”
Does there seem to be something wrong with this sentence? There did to me, too, namely the use of the word timely. Now, to me timely suggests that something is done at the right or appropriate time: a timely interjection, for example, or a timely reminder.
I would equally be happy with someone’s work being timely, if they were some sort of philosopher or critic, or if the work in question offered a relevant and balanced commentary on a contemporary issue – in particular if said issue had gone under-analysed up to this point.
I guess what I dislike about this sentence is the use of timely to mean ‘prompt’ or ‘on-time’.
The OED supports me in this, I think: ‘done or occurring at a favourable or useful time; opportune’. Nothing about ‘done within the deadline’. Merriam-Webster is a bit less supportive of my cause, however: ‘Being or occurring in good time; sufficiently early; seasonable.’
The OED’s ‘at a favourable time’ seems to rule out the possibility of ‘by a good time’ (i.e. within the deadline). But Webster makes ‘sufficiently early’ explicit.
The above quotation was taken from an American website. Perhaps the difference reflected in the varying OED/Webster’s definition of timely reflects a difference in UK/US usage?
There is another factor here, which is that timely can, in theory, be used as an adverb: ‘The report was filed timely’; ‘The Trustee will vote as instructed…if the Trustee timely receives such participant’s voting instructions’ (two real life examples).
Merriam Webster gives this example: ‘the question was not timely raised in the state court’; whilst the OED offers this: ‘they seemed to move the Socialists slightly, but timely, to the Right’. In both cases, timely as an adverb means something like ‘opportunely’ or ‘at the right time’. It is not clear if it can also mean ‘in time’.
In any case, this use of timely seems clumsy and awkward to me, and until today I would have corrected it is an obvious error, substituting it with ‘in a timely manner’, at the very least.
Apparently in accounting it is an accepted usage to mean ‘before the appropriate deadline’:
We filed that tax return timely.
The quarterly payments were sent timely.
I wonder if it is in a similar category to another usage, which seems to be an exclusively US one, to my ears at least: ‘I’ll likely be there around six’; ‘Mitt Romney will likely win this round.’ More on this later…