How to say no politely

by Kate Woodford

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Blend Images/Getty
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Blend Images/Getty

Saying no to a kind offer or invitation can be tricky. We often feel slightly embarrassed by it – the last thing we want is to upset or offend the person who is making the offer. Luckily, there are a number of ways to ‘soften’ the refusal – to make it more polite and acceptable. This post aims to show you how.

Let’s imagine someone invites you out to dinner with a group of friends on Friday and you are unable to go. Of course, you could simply reply ‘No, thank you.’ or say ‘I can’t.’ but either of these responses might sound a little rude – or at least, not very friendly! The easiest way to ‘soften’ your reply is to start with an apology and a brief explanation of why you can’t come:

I’m sorry, I’m busy on Friday.

I’m afraid I can’t make this Friday.

You might add that you would love to do whatever the person is offering, even though you can’t:

I’d love to come out this Friday but I’m afraid I’m busy.

You might, instead, say how nice or tempting the offer is:

It would be really nice, but I’m afraid I can’t come.

That sounds great, but I’m afraid I can’t come.

That’s a really nice invitation, but I’m afraid I can’t come.

A natural next step is to say a little more about why you can’t accept the offer. This explanation softens the refusal, letting the other person know that there is a good reason why you can’t come:

I’m not in town this Friday.

I’m busy this Friday – I’m going out with colleagues.

I’ve already arranged to see an old friend on Friday.

You might then mention that you would be interested in a similar invitation in the future, (if this is true!):

But if you ever arrange another night out, I’d love to come.

Another time, I’d love to come.

Something else that we sometimes have to refuse is the offer of food. Refusing food can feel very rude, especially if the person offering it has made the dish, but there are ways to make a refusal more polite. If someone offers you food and you don’t want any because you are not hungry, the best way to refuse the offer is to explain that you have already eaten:

‘No, thank you, I’ve just eaten.’

You might also add that the food looks good:

‘No, thank you, I’ve just eaten. It does look delicious though!

If someone offers you a second helping of food and you don’t want any more, start by saying how nice the food was and then refuse:

That was absolutely delicious, but I couldn’t manage any more, thank you!

Let’s hope your week is full of pleasant offers and that you are able to accept at least one or two!

13 thoughts on “How to say no politely

  1. Pingback: How to say no politely – Cambridge Dictionary About words blog (Nov 09, 2016) | Editorial Words

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  3. Pingback: How to say no politely | Editorials Today

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Gloria! Thanks for this. This is a tricky one. I’ve recently turned vegan myself so have to decline offers of food quite often and I struggle with it. I usually say something like, ‘No, thank you. It looks delicious, but I don’t eat animal products now.’ If it was for health reasons, I’d probably say the same but something like ‘I avoid dairy for health reasons.’ Whatever you decide to say, I think the key thing is to thank the person for the offer first and then say something nice about the food offered! I hope that helps. Best wishes!

  4. hits

    Thank you for the informative post. I think ‘take a rain check’ is a way to say no to someone’s invitation.
    Is my understanding correct? Is it formal or informal? Is it common or out-of-date?

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi! Yes, that’s correct. This informal expression was originally from the US and I’m not sure whether US speakers of English use it now. It certainly sounds a little dated in UK English. Bst wishes to you!

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