What Does Better Late Than Never Mean?

Better Late Than Never Meaning

Definition: Finishing something later than planned is preferable to failing to finish something at all.

This phrase is often said to someone who has not completed a task on time as a way of both admonishing them and encouraging them.

Someone who is turning something in late—say a college research paper—may also use this phrase. As the student hands in the late assignment, he or she may say, “better late than never” as a way of lightening tension.

Origin of Better Late Than Never

beter late than never The first known use of better late than never is in “The Yeoman’s Tale” from the Canterbury Tales, which dates back to 1386.

In Old English, it reads,

  • “For bet than never is late.”

This translates in today’s English to “better than never is [something done] late.”

While one of the oldest English idioms, it is still one of the most used idioms in modern English.

Examples of Better Late Than Never

never late than never It is common for a teacher to say this phrase to students. When students do not turn something in on time, they may be told, “better late than never; at least you will get some credit for having done the work even if it is late.”

This could also be used to describe things that are overdue for being done. For example, somebody who has lived in a house for six months without installing a smoke detector may finally put one in, saying “better late than never.”

More Examples

  • “Better late than never: Reavis senior ‘graduates’ at board meeting” –Chicago Tribune
  • “Better late than never, Council acts to scrutinize borrowing” –Chicago Sun-Times


Better late than never shows the importance of following through and finishing things, even if they get finished later than their original deadline.