How to apologise in English
Published on November 16, 2020 / Updated on November 10, 2022
If the Brits and the Canadians were ever going to fight about something, I’m pretty sure it would be who apologises more. We apologise for every little transgression, as well as for things which weren’t remotely our fault. We are masters of the apology, so read on for a Brit’s tips on how to apologise in English.
The most overused word in the United Kingdom? Possibly. If someone spills coffee on us at 8am, you will hear us say, “Sorry.” Why are we sorry? Perhaps because you wasted a cup of coffee on our nice shirt. We do like to mix it up a little with “I’m sorry,”, or “I’m really sorry,” but mastering “sorry” in a British accent will take you a long way. You can then spend the entire day in the UK living as a Brit, apologising for having your feet stepped on or being bumped into on the tube.
If you’re in a more formal situation then there are some other phrases you could use to say sorry. “I must apologise for not turning in my report on time.” Or perhaps, “Please accept my apologies. I believe my car got in the way of yours back there.” (This will happen if you rear end a Brit – we are usually perplexed in such a situation, and assume it was our fault.)
In writing you will often see this: “We regret to inform you that we have decided not to publish your piece on the 20 worst things about the UK. Regards, The BBC.” It’s a formulaic way to say ‘sorry’ politely.
Look at this announcement, the dread of London commuters, and try to find someone taking the blame: “Trains are delayed on the Northern line. We are sorry for any inconvenience caused.” Didn’t find it? Apologising doesn’t necessarily mean taking the blame directly. However, there are also times when you should own up to what you’ve done. Have a look at this (imaginary but accurate) exchange between a Brit and a Canadian:
“Sorry about the weather – it’s dreadful.”
“Oh no, it’s my fault. I did call Mother Nature but it seems my request for sunshine got lost this week.”
With friends, a casual “my bad” goes a long way. “Oops, I forgot to turn the oven on. My bad. McDonald’s anyone?”
The polite thing to do when someone apologises is to accept the apology. Let’s imagine you’ve stepped on a British person’s foot. They say, “sorry” obviously. You respond, “no worries!” or “no problem” and keep walking.
In a more formal setting, you might want to be a little more reassuring. Let’s imagine your intern comes to you and tells you that he’s managed to crash the company’s new Tesla into the CEO’s pride and joy. “No harm done,” you reply, wondering how quickly you need to fire him. “It could happen to anyone.”
You can also say, “apology accepted”, but to a lot of people’s ears it doesn’t ring true. As in, it’s a good one to say when you’re still really mad but politeness dictates you accept the apology.
Intonation plays an important role in apologies. Play the stress on the wrong word or syllable and the listener is likely to think you don’t mean it.
We normally place the stress on the first syllable of “Sor-ry” and we have a falling intonation on the word. Saying “Sor-ry” with a stress on the second syllable and a rising intonation tells the listener that you’re a sulky teenager, sarcastically apologising to your long-suffering parents. (Sor-ry mum, I really mean it now I’m 30.)
You should also be aware of the cultural context of apologising. Like we saw at the beginning, Brits and Canadians will expect someone to say sorry a lot. You’ll be seen as rude if you don’t do this when visiting the UK or Canada. Americans on the other hand seem to apologise far less. Apologising too much will either seem like you are taking the blame for what happened, which may or may not be true, or it’ll make you look weak. Or, worst case scenario: it’ll mark you out as a Brit or a Canadian. Sorry!