How to Express and Accept an Apology in the English Language

Apology in the English LanguageLearn different ways to express and accept an apology in English.

Leon Uris, an American novelist, once wrote that the ability of a person to atone has always been the most remarkable of human features. Indeed, expressing an apology – and accepting one – is an important aspect of human behaviour. We are expected to apologize when we have upset someone or caused them trouble in one way or another.

The British like saying sorry a lot, even when an apology isn’t really necessary or when they don’t really mean it. In his article ”Being British is Always Saying You’re Sorry,” (published in Mail Online, 2008) the well-known British novelist, playwright and columnist Keith Waterhouse humorously wrote the following: ”May I offer a tip to the would-be Brits? If you want to earn your passport, don’t worry about the words of the national anthem – nobody in Government does – or which way to hang the Union Jack. What you’ve got to be really good at is being sorry.”

Saying Sorry in English

In English, there are several ways of apologizing. The most common way of apologizing is to say ‘Sorry‘ or ‘I’m sorry‘. You can also make your apology much more emphatic with the adverbs very, so, terribly, and extremely. For example:

  • I’m sorry for being late. / I’m very sorry for being late. / I’m terribly sorry for being late. / I’m extremely sorry for being late.

When you want to apologize for accidentally doing something, for example stepping on someone’s foot or toes, you can say ‘Sorry’ or ‘I beg your pardon‘. For example:

  • He accidentally stepped on someone’s toes. ‘Sorry / I beg your pardon,’ he said.

The expression ‘I beg your pardon‘ is rather old-fashioned.

A note: Speakers of American English will usually say ‘Excuse me‘ in such situations.

Apologizing for Interrupting, Disturbing, Approaching, or Leaving Someone

When you are interrupting someone, you can apologize to them politely by saying ‘Excuse me‘ or ‘I’m sorry to interrupt‘. For example:

  • Excuse me butting in. (butt inis a phrasal verb)
  • Sorry to interrupt / I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’ve got something important to say.

When you are disturbing someone, you can apologize to them by saying ‘Excuse me‘ or ‘I’m sorry to disturb‘. For example:

  • Excuse me for disturbing you at this late hour.
  • Sorry to disturb you again / I’m sorry to disturb you again, but I really need your help.

When you are approaching someone (e.g., when you want to speak to a stranger), you can use the expression ‘Excuse me‘. For example:

  • Excuse me, is there a fairly cheap restaurant near here?

The expression ‘Pardon me‘ can also be used in the above situations. It is sometimes used by speakers of American English. For example:

  • Pardon me, Major, I wonder if you could do me a favour.

Sometimes you have to leave someone for a short period of time in order to do something. In such situations you should use the expression ‘Excuse me‘. For example:

  • Excuse me. I have to make a telephone call. I’ll be right back.

Expressing an Apology for Doing Something Embarrassing

You can use the expressions ‘Excuse me‘ or ‘I beg your pardon‘ to apologize when you have done something slightly embarrassing, such as burping or sneezing.

Expressing an Apology for Saying Something Wrong

You can use the expressions ‘Sorry‘ or ‘I Beg your pardon‘ to apologize for making a mistake in what you’re saying, or for using the wrong word. For example:

  • The town is situated in the southeast, sorry / I beg your pardon, southwest corner of England.

Formal Apologies

When you want to apologize in a very formal manner, you can use the expression ‘I apologize‘. For example:

  • I apologize for my bad behaviour.
  • I really must apologize for my bad manners.

Another formal expression, used especially in writing, is ‘Please accept my apologies‘.

  • Please accept my appologies for this unfortunate incident.

You can also use the expression ‘Forgive me‘ to apologize to someone in a formal manner. For example:

  • Forgive me, Ms. Batista. I am very late for our meeting. I was held up in traffic.

Accepting an Apology

You can accept an apology by using several fixed expressions, such as ‘That’s ok‘, ‘That’s alright‘, ‘Forget it‘, ‘It doesn’t matter‘, or ‘Don’t worry about it‘. For example:

  • A: I’m sorry for being late, sir. B: That’s alright, but don’t let it happen again.
  • A: I apologize for my bad behaviour. B: Forget it.
  • A: I’m sorry for spilling my drink. B: Don’t worry about it. No harm done.

Please note that apologize is the preferred spelling in American and Canadian English. Apologise is the preferred spelling in British English. If you are interested in reading the entertaining article ”Being British is Always Saying You’re Sorry” by Keith Waterhouse, you can find it here.