In a country where tu (you) and vous (you) are used to distinguish between formal/informal situations, manners are important, especially in the language (likewise with asking “how are you?”). It’s no different when it comes to apologizing and saying “I’m sorry” in French. Knowing the right words and phrases to use for each person or situation is essential, so we’d like to give you a brief overview to help you learn what to say and to avoid any faux pas! This article provides four ways of saying “I’m sorry” in French, where and when to use them, as well as some cultural tips and tricks for apologizing in French.
- 1. The classic – je suis désolé.e
- 2. The everyday sorry – pardon
- 3. The formal way – excusez-moi
- 4. The deep apology – je suis navré.e
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1. The classic – je suis désolé.e
The most common way to say “I’m sorry” in French is je suis désolé.e. It can be used in pretty much any situation, from apologizing to a friend after an argument to when you’re running late for an appointment. At times, you will hear it shortened to désolé.e (sorry), which is more informal than the previous phrase.
This phrase can also be used to say “sorry” in the context of a death when you want to give your condolences. Top tip: Remember to conjugate the verb to feminine/masculine and singular/plural! For example, if a group of men and women want to apologize, they would say nous sommes désolés.
The classic 2.0
You can also jazz up this classic phrase by adding an adjective before the word désolé.e. This helps emphasize how sorry you are feeling. Here are some examples:
- Je suis très désolé.e (I’m very sorry)
- Je suis profondément désolé.e (I’m deeply sorry)
In any case, this classic phrase is a safe bet. If you’re unsure of the formality of the situation or what phrase to use depending on who you are speaking to, je suis désolé.e will always be a good option.
2. The everyday sorry – pardon
If you live in a city, you will no doubt have experienced rush hour on the bus/subway/train. So you will know what it’s like to bump into a stranger and have to quickly apologize: “excuse me/pardon/sorry” are staples in this situation.
In French, the term for this is pardon and you will hear this everywhere on the Paris subway. This term can also be used when you’d like someone to repeat what they said, in case you didn’t hear them or misheard them.
3. The formal way – excusez-moi
Excusez-moi (excuse me) is a more formal expression used to say excuse me in French and is often used to get the attention of, for example, a shop assistant. If you’d like to ask where the milk is, you would say:
Excusez-moi, où se trouve le lait?
Cultural tip: If you’d like to ask the question above, you will most likely be asking a stranger (the shop assistant) so it’s culturally polite to begin with bonjour (hello) before asking a question.
The verb of this phrase, s’excuser (to excuse yourself) is also used as a formal way to apologize in French. For example:
- Very formal: Je vous prie de bien vouloir m’excuser (Please accept my apologies)
- Very formal: Je vous demande de m’excuser (I beg your pardon)
- Fairly formal: Veuillez m’excuser (Please accept my apologies)
This verb can also be seen in writing when someone wants to apologize for the inconvenience in French, for example in the customer service sector. Take a look at this example:
- Nous vous prions de bien vouloir nous excuser pour la gêne occasionnée (We apologize for any inconvenience caused)
This formal phrase may be part of an email from a company apologizing for a delay in your delivery or a missing item. It may also be seen in a shop window if they close unexpectedly early and want to apologize to disappointed customers.
4. The deep apology – je suis navré.e
We’ve all made big mistakes in life and sometimes that requires more than a simple “I’m sorry.” If you want to express your deep regret and apologies, the best phrase to use in French would be Je suis navré.e. This expression is very formal and serious but also reflects a much deeper emotion of being sorry. It is often used in written French and can also be said when reacting to bad news, like a death.
Sorry not sorry
There are, of course, other ways to say sorry but we wanted to introduce you to the most common expressions and terms in this article. Being able to adapt your French to any given situation, formal or informal, will definitely earn you brownie points on your language learning journey. So from learning how to toast to how to say sorry in French, we’ve got you covered (try out some French vocabulary apps to help you remember these basics).
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Clara Avrillier is a writer, linguist and content manager living in the South of France. She loves getting out in nature, doing sport, reading and playing music. She also works with expats looking to move to France. Connect with her on LinkedIn.