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“In a timely manner”: Meaning, Usage & Alternatives

“In a timely manner”: Meaning, Usage & Alternatives

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The phrase “in a timely manner” conjures up images of a bygone era when time seemed to move more slowly.

It has its origins in the emergence of bureaucracy, and has been replaced by terms more commonly used these days in project management

In the 21st century, we would more likely speak of delivering, ‘to a given standard, on time and within budget’. 


What is the meaning of “in a timely manner”?

“In a timely manner” is basically a formal, but polite way of saying, ‘hurry up’, or ‘I need this task completed quickly’. The term arose around the mid-1900s during the era that saw the rise of corporate management. If a senior member of staff wanted a junior member of staff to deliver results quickly, they would employ this phrase. 


Agreement between two parties

The use of the phrase implies an agreement between two people, usually of different ranks, about a task that will take a period of time, and may be complex. 

For example, it would be used when requesting that the catering for a party be delivered on time, but not for a single cup of tea on returning home. 


The first course at the wedding dinner needs to be served in a timely fashion so that the bridal party won’t be missed when they leave to have their photographs taken.  

Note that this does not state a specific time. It is contingent on several factors, like the start of the wedding reception. 


Time dependency

The phrase also implies that the timing matters because another action is dependant on this task being fulfilled. 


The plumbing in the bathroom needs to be installed in a timely fashion so that the tilers can complete the finishing touches before the hotel opens for business in March. 


Too polite to stress urgency

It can be used, after the fact, to describe a sense of urgency or the importance of the timing of an action. 


The occupants of the hotel received the warning of the tsunami in a timely fashion and were therefore able to evacuate the building and reach high ground before disaster struck. 

In the moments before the disaster, however, the term would not have been effective. Management would probably not urge their guests to leave the hotel, ‘in a timely fashion’.

They might have loud hailers, and shout, ‘A tsunami is coming! A tsunami is coming! Get out the building now and head for the top of the hill!’  


Time is important but attitude even more so

It is not a legally binding term, given the vagueness of the expression, but does imply the need for due diligence and cognisance of a time frame in which to deliver results. 

There are two parts to the concept, namely ‘timely’ and ‘fashion’. There is a time component and the attitude to that time component. 

The task is to be done as soon as possible, taking into account the prevailing circumstances. There is some leeway with regard to the exact time of delivery, but not to a lack of conscientiousness. 

The work needs to be done to a agreed upon standard, while bearing in mind that there is a time constraint.


The plastering on the building is to be done in a timely fashion, however the client understands that there may be time delays due to unfavourable winter weather conditions.  


Timely: Adverb or Adjective? 

Americans do tend to use the word ‘timely’ in place of the full phrase.

However, debate rages about whether the word ‘timely’ can be used as an adverb, e.g. ‘the report needs to be delivered timely’.

Others may argue that that sentence should be rephrased as, ‘There needs to be timely delivery of the report’. 

The basis for the argument is that adverbs are formed by adding the suffix -ly to adjectives.

For example, ‘that is a beautiful dress’ (adjective) can be used as an adverb, ‘the dress was sewn beautifully’. 

The word ‘time’ is a noun, and therefore becomes an adjective, and not an adverb, when the suffix -ly is appended. In the form ‘timely’, it should only be used to describe other nouns and not verbs.

Hence, the construct of the phrases ‘in a timely fashion’, ‘in a timely manner’ and ‘on a timely basis’. 

Similar words in the English language include friendly, lovely and homely. The rather cumbersome word ‘friendlily’ is an adverb that can be found in the Oxford Dictionary.  


Verbal and non-verbal communication

As stated above, the phrase is used politely when the person requesting the task does not want to be seen to be pulling rank or unduly rushing the person doing the work. 

There is room for confusion because one person’s sense of urgency may not be matched by the other person’s in such a verbal or written interaction. 

It is best to observe the non-verbal cues that accompany such a request to understand the true meaning of the agreement and the consequences of non-delivery. 

It would also probably be wise to get an understanding of the exact time frames each party is committing to. 


Alternative expressions for “in a timely manner”

Alternatives to the phrase are, ‘in a timely manner’ or ‘on a timely basis’. 

The word ‘timeously’ would be a succinct way of expressing the same sentiment but it is not in common use in American English. 

The Oxford dictionary states its origin as being Scottish. The word is used in the English legal system but seems to have bypassed everyday speech.

Curiously, it is found to be well understood in the former British colonies of Sub Saharan Africa. 


Frequently asked questions about “in a timely manner” and closely related expressions


Do you say, ‘in a timely fashion’ or ‘on a timely fashion’ ?

In the English language we speak of being ‘on time’ but ‘in a certain manner’. 

In this expression the preposition ‘in’ is used because it is associated with the ‘fashion’ in which the time was applied, not the time itself.


What is the difference between ‘on time’ and ‘in a timely fashion’? 

‘On time’ implies that you know the exact time. Another word that can be used is ‘punctual’ which means you can be early but not late for a specified time.  

Example: It is vitally important that you be on time for work every day in order to take over from the night shift.

In this example, ‘in a timely fashion’ may be used to describe how you get to work in order to arrive on time. It does not imply an exact time. 

Example: You need to get dressed in a timely fashion in order to be ready for your lift to work.