I’m so sorry! (The language of apologizing)

by Kate Woodford​​​​
From time to time, we all have to apologize (= say we are sorry for something we have done). This post looks at the language of saying sorry and also considers the way that people respond when someone says sorry.

First, then, the apology itself. The phrase ‘I’m sorry’ can be made stronger and more sincere by adding ‘so‘ or ‘really‘: I’m so sorry we’re late./I’m really sorry about last night. Note that people who are apologizing often say a little more at this point, either to explain why they did what they did, or to say why they are sorry:

I’m really sorry I said that. I was just so upset at the time.

I’m so sorry I said those things. I know I really upset you.

Often the phrase should have (or shouldn’t have) is used here:

I’m so sorry I didn’t let you know. I should have called you.

I’m really sorry, William. I shouldn’t have blamed you like that.

The person apologizing sometimes wants to make clear that they are responsible for the bad thing that happened. The phrase ‘it’s my fault’ is sometimes used here:

I shouldn’t have told Jamie – it was my fault. I should have known better.

Notice the phrase ‘I should have known better’ where the speaker admits that he or she did something silly.

Sometimes, when apologizing, you have to explain the bad thing that you have done before you can say sorry. ‘I’m afraid …’ is the most common way to do this:

I’m afraid I broke your favourite mug, Sophie. I’m really sorry – I’ll buy you another, I promise.

A useful phrase to introduce the explanation here is ‘I owe you an apology’. Note that this phrase tends to be used before people say sorry for something that is not very serious:

I owe you an apology, Sam. I’m afraid I forgot to pass on your message to Tom.

Another phrase that sometimes comes before an explanation and apology is ‘I have a confession to make.’. Again, this tends to be used before a person admits to doing something wrong that is not very serious:

I have a confession to make, Sam. I’m afraid I’ve lost that book you lent me.

So what do we say when people apologize to us? Assuming that the matter is not terribly important, we may want to make the person feel less bad by using phrases such as ‘It doesn’t matter.’ or ‘Don’t worry (about it).’ Note that we often add something after a phrase like this to let them know that we are not angry or upset:

A: I’m sorry I’m late.

B: Don’t worry – I’ve only just got here myself!


A: I’m afraid I can’t find that email from Julia – I’m really sorry.

B: Oh, it doesn’t matter – I can easily call her and ask what the problem is.

A slightly more informal way of responding to an apology is to say ‘That’s okay.’ or ‘No worries.’ or ‘Not to worry.’:

A: I’m really sorry we can’t make it to your party.

B: No worries – we’ll meet up some other time.


A: Oh, I forgot to call James. I’m sorry!

B: That’s okay. I’ll call him later.



24 thoughts on “I’m so sorry! (The language of apologizing)

  1. Krzysztof Wasilewski

    You can also introduce the apology with:

    Please excuse me for…
    Please forgive me for…
    Please accept my apologies for…
    I feel guilty about…

  2. Mahmud Hasan

    This is really helping me improve my English skill. I mean not only this lesson but also the entire blog, the everyday lesson, is such a valuable resource to learn English. Anyone can use it improving their communication skill. Happy to be have this opportunity.

  3. Marjorie

    I can understand your example above …..”I’m really sorry I said that. I was just so upset at the time.” ,,,, and I think that is quite reasonable, however one has to be careful, in offering an apology, to NOT try to justify one’s actions to the point of giving multiple examples. I read a 4 page ‘apology’ letter once – the first paragraph apologised for the behaviour and for upsetting the recipient of the letter, the rest of the 4 pages was about past hurts and disappointments and justification of actions. NOT a genuine apology to my mind, it was more an explanation.

    1. suzzeek

      Hi Patricia! Absolutely yes. This article is useful for speakers and writers. I like the way it explains how to apologize — sincerely — based on the situation.

    2. suzzeek

      Patricia, good question. These phrases can be used effectively whether writing or speaking.

      I notice that those who apologize in writing often choose to write the apology because the offense caused more harm than discussed in this article. For example, I’ve done something terrible, causing my friend pain — and they will not speak to me or listen to an apology.

      The written apology offers one the chance to speak with greater remorse and more detail. They may be seeking forgiveness, they may want to express their sorrow more deeply.

  4. First let me thank you for such a valuable resource to improve my English skills.
    Now, on this post, you refer twice that the given examples are a good fit only when the mistake or error we’ve committed is _not_ terribly important. Obviously that makes me wonder what would be the spoken language approach which would be considered acceptable in more serious situations.

  5. suzzeek

    This is a good article. There is also the art of insincere apologies, not addressed here. Generally, it only requires that you offer a mindless “Oh, sorry,” or apologizing using an angry tone of voice: “I SAID I was sorry, OK?”

  6. Pingback: Teksty tematyczne do nauki słownictwa. | Kramik z angielskim

  7. Pingback: How the language betrays your real intention - TermCoord Terminology Coordination UnitTermCoord Terminology Coordination Unit

  8. Pingback: Phrases and pragmatics | ELT Infodump

Leave a Reply