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Is It Correct to Say “Happy Belated Birthday”?

From social media to online calendar applications, we have no excuse to forget anyone’s birthday; yet, life sometimes catches up with us, and we occasionally miss one. When that happens, you may wonder if it’s correct to say “Happy belated birthday” once you remember.

It’s technically incorrect to say “Happy belated birthday” when you are late in sending wishes for someone’s birthday, but it’s an expression that has become accepted. Instead, you should say “Belated happy birthday,” but most people use the minor sentence “Happy belated birthday” as an expression of late birthday wishes.

This article will explore the expression “Happy belated birthday” and how we use it. First, we’ll consider the concept of “belated” to understand what it means and later delve into the role of minor sentences in English. 

What Does “Happy Belated Birthday” Mean?

We use “Happy Birthday” to express our good wishes for someone’s birthday. “Belated” means “later than expected” and shows that our wishes are late (source). So “Happy belated birthday” literally means “Happy late birthday.”

People have been talking about birthdays since the late 14th century. The word originated from the Old English byrddæg, which meant “anniversary of one’s birth” (source). The expression “Happy Birthday” developed from that. 

When we place “belated” in front of “Happy birthday,” we are wishing you a late “Happy birthday,” meaning that our wishes are delayed or later than they should be. Originally, “belated” meant “overtaken by night” and implied that you had stayed too late into the night. This meaning has faded, and now the word simply means “late.”

It’s a common expression that is easy to use; in just three words, it manages to convey that we wish you a happy birthday despite our wishes being overdue.

How Do You Use “Happy Belated Birthday”?

We use “Happy Belated Birthday” when we have missed someone’s birthday and still want to tell them we hope it was happy, even if our wishes are late. It’s an expression that stands alone, and the subject “you” is implied as in “You have a happy birthday.”

We use “Happy belated birthday” as a greeting when we are either speaking or writing to someone who has recently had a birthday we missed saying “Happy birthday” on.

“Happy belated birthday” is a minor sentence that doesn’t have all the parts necessary for a major sentence but stands alone as if it were a sentence because it is a common expression. 

Although people often say “Happy belated birthday,” it is technically incorrect. Instead, they should say “Belated happy birthday” because our wishes are late, not your birthday. 

“Happy birthday” is a complete expression, and “belated” applies to both words rather than just “birthday,” which could be implied if you placed it in the middle. However, common usage means that everyone knows exactly what you mean when you say, “Happy belated birthday.”

When Can You Use “Happy Belated Birthday”?

You can use “Happy belated birthday” any time you have forgotten someone’s birthday and want to convey your wishes after the fact. You can use the expression in writing or speech – in polite or casual company.

Image by Estee Janssens via Unsplash

If you were meeting someone, you might say “Happy belated birthday!” as you arrive and give them a gift. Or you might send someone a text or an email after realizing that you have missed the day.

You could write something like, “Happy belated birthday! Yesterday was so busy, and although I thought about you, I just never got around to calling. Hope you had a wonderful day.” 

Because it’s a minor sentence and there’s no verb involved, “Happy belated birthday” doesn’t change with verb tenses. Therefore, “belated” implies that the birthday has passed and your wishes are for the missed event.

When Not to Use “Happy Belated Birthday”

You shouldn’t use “Happy Belated Birthday” when your birthday wishes aren’t late or if the person you’re addressing hasn’t had a birthday. And, if you’re in an environment where grammar needs to be technically correct, then you should use “Belated happy birthday” instead.

If you see someone on their birthday or send them a text on the day, you would just say “Happy Birthday.” You don’t need to use “belated” unless the birthday has passed and your wishes are late.

Because “Happy belated birthday” is not technically the correct way to construct the sentence, it would be best to go with “Belated happy birthday” when you are with formal company so that you know you are correct. 

Using “Happy Belated Birthday” in a Full Sentence

“Happy belated birthday” is an expression that we classify as a minor sentence. That means it can stand alone and take the place of a full sentence by itself, even though it’s missing some of the pieces that make up a major sentence.

We can also use it independently or as part of a major sentence. Look at the examples below:

  • Happy belated birthday, John! Sorry I missed your special day.
  • I’d like to wish you a happy belated birthday
  • This gift comes with wishes for a very happy belated birthday.
  • Sarah called to wish me a happy belated birthday
  • Let’s meet for drinks to celebrate your belated happy birthday.

What Can You Use Instead of “Happy Belated Birthday”?

Instead of saying “Happy belated birthday” once you realize you’ve missed someone’s special day, you could always use the grammatically correct “Belated happy birthday.” Besides that, there are a few other alternatives you could use.

Image by Nick Fewings via Unsplash

Perhaps you have met up with someone whose birthday you missed, or you’re sending a message to a friend. You might say something like one of the following.

  • I hope you had a wonderful birthday last week! 
  • These wishes are late, but I really hope your birthday was happy.
  • Forgive me for being late, but sending special birthday wishes nonetheless!
  • Happy birthday to you! So sorry these wishes are late.
  • Belated wishes for a very happy birthday.

You might even want to make a joke of having forgotten, in which case you could say something like the following.

  • I’m always fashionably late, but happy birthday to you!
  • Sorry, these wishes are late. I guess that means we’ll have to celebrate even more!
  • Sorry to be late to the party! Sending the happiest birthday wishes to you.

To read more about how to wish people well, head over to our articles Is It Correct to Say “Well Wishes”? and Is It Correct to Say “Happiest Birthday”?

Minor Sentences

A minor sentence can be a word, phrase, or clause that functions as a sentence even though it lacks all the pieces necessary to make a complete sentence (source). By contrast, a major sentence must have a subject and a predicate.

Minor sentences make sense even though they are missing pieces. They may only be fragments, but they serve a purpose in language because they often create an effect in conversation, give emphasis, or show surprise. 

Let’s consider examples of how we use minor sentences in everyday English. The minor sentences are in bold font.

  • He needs a doctor. Fast!
  • Like father, like son.
  • The treasure chest was empty. Absolutely empty.
  • Help! Please!
  • Happy Hanukkah

As you can see, there are many examples where we use minor sentences in everyday life. They can be single words or sentence fragments. Often, they’re interjections like “wow!” or “Amazing!” and they can also be proverbs, idioms, or conventional polite greetings, such as “Happy belated birthday.”  

Polite Expressions as Minor Sentences

We pepper our conversation with polite expressions daily, and many of these are minor sentences. These include things like “Happy birthday,” “Merry Christmas,”  “Good day,” or “Thank you.”

There are many polite minor sentences that we use every day. They are often interjections we inherently understand, and they stand independently grammatically. The table below lists some of the more common ones you are likely already familiar with. 

GreetingsGood afternoon.Good day.Hello!Good evening.Good morning.Hi!
ThanksThank you!Much appreciated.Thanks.
Well WishesHappy New Year!Happy Hanukkah!Merry Christmas!Happy Birthday!Good luck.Bless you!
Polite Responses1: How are you?2: Fine thanks. (minor sentence)
1: Thank you for my beautiful gift.2: My pleasure. (minor sentence)
1: Would you like a ride to the beach?2: Yes, please. (minor sentence)
Excuse me.Pardon me.
ComplimentsWell done!Bravo!Good thinking!Hip hip hooray!Congratulations!

Sometimes, we even adapt expressions from other languages that eventually become minor sentences standing alone as polite expressions. These include phrases such as the French “Bon voyage” to wish someone a good trip or the Italian “Ciao” to say goodbye. This article was written for

Final Thoughts

We often hear people say “Happy belated birthday,” and we regularly see it printed on birthday cards, so it’s interesting to know that even though we commonly use it, it’s actually grammatically incorrect.

Nonetheless, it’s good to understand why it should be written as “belated happy birthday” and to accept that common usage means everyone understands what we mean whichever way we use it. 

It’s also interesting to know that English is made up of major and minor sentences and that many of the common expressions we use are minor sentences because they don’t contain all the formal bits that need to be in a complete sentence.