Shortly later, alligator

Q: We have a usage question in the office about these two phrases, “shortly later” and “a short time later.” Is one correct or incorrect? Is one preferred?

A: “Shortly later” doesn’t strike us as idiomatic English. We’d say “shortly” or “later” or “a short time later.”

However, a lot of people like the usage. When we googled “shortly later,” we got 277,000 hits.

Perhaps they’re confusing it with the more common adverbial phrase “shortly after,” as in “The fireworks began at nine and we arrived shortly after.”

As for “shortly,” “later,” and “a short time later,” all three are adverbial usages (as in “I returned shortly” … “I returned later” … “I returned a short time later”).

The first two are straight adverbs and the third functions as an adverbial phrase. All three are perfectly fine.

It’s not unusual to have one adverb modifying another (as in “rather soon” or “relatively later”), but a combination like “shortly later” sounds clunky to our ears.

If we wanted a more informal way of saying “a short time later,” we’d go with “a little later” or “a bit later” or “somewhat later.”

And with that we’ll say, “See you later, alligator.”

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