How To Apologize In French

What’s your l’excuse?
October 6, 2020
How To Apologize In French

The first thing you need to learn about saying “sorry” in French is that you probably won’t say it nearly as much as you might be inclined to as an over-eager American apology fanatic. In fact, if you want your apology to come through as sincere, you’re better off not over-apologizing. Limit your “sorries” to occasions that truly merit them, and keep them short and to the point, and you’ll fly right in French society.

Of course, there’s a difference between landing at just the right amount of “sorry” and neglecting to acknowledge when you’ve stepped on someone else’s toes. The whole point of learning etiquette is to avoid being rude, you know?

In many cases, you’ll want to have a couple alternatives to “I’m sorry” on hand — something to the effect of “excuse me,” or “pardon my reach.” Here are a few different ways to say “sorry” in French, fit for all the various situations you’ll encounter as a person who makes mistakes.

How To Say Sorry In French

A Standard Sorry

The most direct translation of “sorry” in French is the verb être désolé, which means “to be sorry.” If you want to say “I’m sorry,” that would be Je suis désolé in the masculine form and Je suis désolée in the feminine.

If you’re going to keep any term in your back pocket, this would probably be it, as you can use it to address anyone ranging from your best friend to your boss. It can also work in a pretty wide range of situations, including sympathy and situations that are, to some degree, your fault.

In certain cases, you don’t have to say the whole phrase — sometimes, the “Je suis” can come across as overly formal. To take it down a notch, you can simply say Désolé(e) (“Sorry”).

Here are examples of how you might hear this word in context.

  • Désolé, je n’ai pas envie de sortir aujourd’hui. — Sorry, I don’t feel like going out today.
  • Je suis désolé, je ne suis pas libre ce soir. — I’m sorry, I don’t have any time tonight.
  • Désolé, je n’ai pas de montre. — Sorry, I don’t have a watch.
  • Ah, désolée, je n’ai pas fait attention. — Ah, sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.
  • Je suis désolé. Je suis vraiment un mauvais conducteur. — I’m sorry. I am truly a bad driver.
  • Je suis désolée… Je ne voulais pas te faire de la peine ! — I’m sorry… I didn’t want to hurt you!
  • Je suis désolée pour ta perte. — I’m sorry for your loss.

When It Was Just An Accident

There are many cases where désolé(e) might sound a little unnatural or excessive. If you’re apologizing to someone for bumping into them on the street, that’s a pretty good case for using a word like pardon instead.

Pardon in French is pretty close in meaning to its English counterpart. However, pardon still implies a certain level of culpability. In other words, you wouldn’t use pardon to simply get someone’s attention. It’s more for when you accidentally get in someone’s way or have to ask someone to repeat themselves.

Here’s how that might sound in real life:

  • Pardon, je t’ai raté hier, j’étais en réunion. — Sorry I missed you yesterday, I was in a meeting.
  • Pardon, quel est votre nom ? — Sorry, what’s your name?
  • Pardon ? Combien ? — Sorry? How much?
  • Pardon, je n’ai pas compris. — Excuse me, I did not understand that.
  • Pardon, madame. — Excuse me, ma’am.

When You’re Signaling For Attention

You’re probably also familiar with various forms of l’excuse, which literally translates to “the apology.” Most often, you’ll hear people say excusez-moi, or “excuse me,” when they’d like to politely get someone’s attention or make your way past someone in a crowded spot. In essence, this is the preemptive apology before you actually bump into them — a small apology for the interruption, but also a nice way of saying “get out of my way.”

You can also use it in certain “telephone faux pas” contexts (like calling the wrong number), or in situations where you’re about to conceptually interrupt someone’s train of thought (by disagreeing with them, for instance).

  • Excusez-moi, j’ai fait un faux numéro. — Sorry, I’ve called the wrong number.
  • Excuse-moi, je dois raccrocher maintenant. — Sorry, I have to hang up now.
  • Tu dormais quand j’ai appelé ? Excuse-moi ! — Were you sleeping when I called? Sorry!
  • Excuse-moi, Hercule… Mais dans les romans policiers, le coupable est toujours le meilleur ami ou le collègue... — Sorry, Hercule… But in crime novels, the culprit is always the best friend or colleague…
  • Excusez-moi, est-ce que je peux passer ? — Excuse me, could you let me pass please?

More Buttoned-Up Alternatives

Sometimes, you might hear apologies that are more formal or official-sounding than Je suis désolé(e).

These include:

  • Je regrette — I’m sorry (lit. “I regret it”)
  • Veuillez m’excuser — Please excuse me/Please accept my apologies
  • Je vous demande pardon — I beg your pardon
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