‘Be late for’ vs. ‘be late to’ in English

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

When you want to take part in some activity and you are late, you can say either that you are “late for the activity” or that you are “late to the activity”, for instance,

I am late for/to school.
He is going to be late for/to work.
Don’t be late for/to dinner.

However, the variant with “for” is much more widespread than the variant with “to”, and many native speakers (especially of British English) consider the phrase “to be late to something” either unnatural or substandard (although both are relatively common in English literature). If you want to be on the safe side, it is advisable to avoid the variant with “to” altogether.

One major exception to the rule is the colloquial phrase “to be late to the party”, which means “to become involved in something long after others”. For example, you could say:

Many of my friends already have children, but I am only just getting married. I guess I’m late to the party.

Again, this idiom is less widespread in British English than in American English, but in American English, it is actually more common than “to be late for the party”. Since it is colloquial, you should avoid it in any kind of formal writing.

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.

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