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Concourse 2

Saying sorry


Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” ― Benjamin Franklin


Different cultures

In English, people often say they are sorry, or apologise for something.  In other cultures (yours?) people do not say they are sorry very often and it is a difficult thing to do because people do not like to say they have done something wrong.

In Britain, people say sorry quite a lot.  For example:

A recent survey of more than 1,000 Brits found that that the average person says ‘sorry’ around eight times per day – and that one in eight people apologise up to 20 times a day.
(The BBC)

It is also probably true that British people say they are sorry more often than American people.

Some nationalities almost never apologise but in English-speaking societies, you will be expected to apologise for something, even if it is not your fault!
For example, in Britain, it is quite common for people to say something like
    I'm sorry about the rain


There are 5 types of apology

In many course books and websites, you will find a list of ways to say 'sorry' in English.  Usually it is not very easy to choose which one to use because there are different types of apology.
Here's list of some ways to make an apology but which one you use will depend on what you mean.

How you choose to say sorry depends on two things:

  1. appropriacy
    How formal or informal do you need to be?
        Are you speaking or writing?
  2. your meaning or intention
    What kind of apology are you making?
        Are you saying something is your fault
        Are you trying to get past someone in a crowd?
        Has somebody told you a sad story


Type 1: It's my fault!

I'm so sorry  

This is what most people understand by the word apology.  We are saying two things:

  1. I have made a mistake
  2. It will try to make sure it does not happen again

Here are some examples of what to say:
    I'm very sorry for forgetting your birthday
    I'm sorry I broke the glass
    I must apologise for forgetting the meeting

For this kind of apology, we do NOT use words like Excuse me or Pardon, so these are wrong:
    *Excuse me for breaking the glass
    *Please excuse the management for ...
    *I beg your pardon for forgetting the meeting

and so on.

We can use the verb apologise so these are right:
    I apologise for coming late
    You should apologise for being rude
    I really must apologise for being so careless

Less formally, we also use the expression I am sorry or Say sorry, so these are right, too:
    I am sorry I'm late
    You should say sorry to Mary for being rude
    I'm sorry I was careless

We do not say sorry for when we make these kinds of apology so these are WRONG:
    *I am sorry for I'm late
    *I am sorry for I was careless

? Try a short test before you go on.


Type 2: Please move!

Excuse me ... Sorry, Excuse me ... Sorry  

This kind of apology does not really mean you are sorry and you are not promising anything.  Sometimes this is called the pushy apology because we use it before we push someone.
This is what we mean:

  1. We have not made a mistake
  2. I will do this again if I must

In these, we do not use the verb apologise, but we do use two phrases very often.  They are:

We use these expressions when, for example:

Here are some more examples:

Look at the picture above.
When we are getting to our seat or pushing through a crowd, we say Excuse me before we push and Sorry after we have pushed!

? Try another short test before you go on.


Type 3: I'm sorry for you

I'm sorry you feel so bad  

The sympathy apology is not really an apology.  You are just being nice and trying to help.
When we say sorry because someone else has a problem, we are saying

  1. I know you feel bad and I am listening
  2. It's not my fault
  3. I cannot promise to help

Almost the only thing you can say when you are sympathetic is something like:

and so on.

Sometimes, we can add something helpful such as:

We do not use the verb apologise and we do not use Excuse me or Pardon when we show sympathy, because we have not made a mistake!


Type 4: The apology which is NOT an apology at all!

I'm sorry if you feel like that  

In English we sometimes say sorry and we do not mean:
    I have made a mistake
we mean
    You have made a mistake
We often use the word if. in these sorts of apologies.
Here are some examples:

We do not really mean I'm sorry.  We mean:

  1. I have not made a mistake
  2. You have made the mistake
  3. I don't care about your opinion
  4. I am not promising to do anything

We only usually use I'm sorry or I apologise when we mean this.

The intonation on the phrase is very important.

Your voice must rise towards the end to make this kind of statement.  Like this:

is NOT an apology

If your voice falls towards the end, it is a REAL apology.  Like this:

is an apology


Type 5: I'm sorry and Excuse me before a question

Excuse me, can you tell me ...  

In English, we do not like to ask direct questions to people we do not know.  We often introduce the question or request with either I'm sorry but ... or (more often) Excuse me but ....
This is not a real apology at all, of course, because you have not made a mistake.

We are saying two things:

  1. I am not sorry at all
  2. I am not promising anything

You cannot use the verb apologise but there are other ways to introduce a question.  For example:


You couldn't help it
That's OK
Yes, it's ...

Before you can respond to an apology, you need to know what sort of apology it is!

Here are some expressions you can use divided by the sort of apology you hear.

Type 1: I'm sorry.  It's my fault
That's all right.
Never mind.
Please don't apologise.
Don't worry about it.
Type 2: I'm sorry.  I need to get to my seat
Say nothing: just move out of the way
I'm sorry.  I'll move over.
Type 3: I'm sorry for you.  You must feel terrible
Thanks.  That helps a bit.
Thanks for listening.
Thanks, I'll be OK later
Thank you for listening.
Type 4: I'm sorry if you don't like my country.  I love it.
Oh, I'm sorry.  I didn't mean that.
Well, that's how I feel, I'm afraid.
Don't be like that!
Type 5: I'm sorry, do you know where this bus goes?
Yes, it goes to ...
I'm sorry.  I'm afraid I don't know
Well, I think it goes to ... but I'm not really sure.

It's easy to see that giving the wrong answer because you do not understand what I'm sorry means can be quite a bad mistake.

In this task, decide what sort of apology is being offered and then suggest an appropriate response or two.  Then click on the eye open.

Excuse me for interrupting but I need to ask a question.
eye open
This is Type 2, the pushy apology so you do not need to forgive the speaker.
It may be enough to keep quiet and let the person ask the question or you can say:
Yes, what is it?
That's OK, what do you need to know?
It would be wrong to say:
*Never mind
*Don't apologise
*That's all right

I'm sorry, is this your suitcase?
eye open
This is the Type 5 apology and it introduces a question.
You can simply answer the question with, for example:
Yes, it is.
No, it isn't.
Sometimes it will be better for you to apologise and say, for example:
Yes, it is.  I'm sorry, I'll move it.
It would be wrong to say:
*Never mind
*Don't apologise
*Don't worry
*That's all right
I'm sorry to hear about John.  Is he getting any better?
eye open
This is the Type 3 apology.  Someone is expressing sympathy.
Simply saying
and then answering the question is enough.
It would be wrong to say:
*Never mind
*Don't apologise
*That's all right
I'm sorry I was so late for your party.  I had a terrible journey and I left it too late, I'm afraid.
eye open
This is a real apology and the speaker is accepting that it is his or her fault.
You need to accept the apology with something like:
That's all right.
Oh, it doesn't matter.
I understand but it was a pity you missed the food.
I apologise if you don't like the way I work but that's life.
eye open
This is not an apology!  Someone is complaining about your opinion about how they work.
It is difficult to answer this, but you can try something like:
Well, it doesn't really fit with how we do things here.
OK, but you can't expect everyone else to work your way, can you?

write Here's a short task for you.
Decide which response goes with which statement in this table.  Write the numbers 1 to 5 on a piece of paper and put the letters A, B, C, D or E next to the right number.

Statement   Response
1: I'm sorry to hear about your illness.   A: That's OK but don't let it happen again.
2: Excuse me, is this the way to the shopping centre? B: Well, it is a bit strange.
3: I'm sorry I'm late.  I missed the bus. C: Thanks.
4: I'm sorry can I get through here, please? D: No, you need to go back to the top of the hill.
5: I apologise if you don't like my haircut. E: (Person moves)

Now click here for the right answer.

? Try the last test.

That's the end of the lesson
Sorry it was so long!

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If you want to read the article on the BBC website, it is at: