Imagine how you’d react if your boss fired you and told you “Sorry, bro” as an apology. You’d be even more upset at the news, because what kind of apology is that?
Now imagine how you’d react if a friend bumped into you and said, “I beg your pardon”. You’d wonder why he spoke so formally, or maybe you’d think he was teasing you.
These two examples illustrate the importance of using the right apology for the right situation, and that’s what this article will help you do.
After reading it, you’ll know the best way to say “sorry” in every situation you may encounter in France.
The classic “I’m sorry”
The most basic way to say sorry in French is Je suis désolé, You can use it the same way you’d use “I’m sorry” in English. That means you can say it to anyone: a friend, a family member, a stranger, a coworker, your boss, the Queen….
Here are some examples of situations when you could use “Je suis désolé”:
- You phone your doctor to say you’re stuck in traffic and won’t be able to make it to your appointment on time.
- You yelled at your friend yesterday and want to apologize.
- You’re talking to your neighbor, who informs you that his best friend died last week.
As you can see from that last example, just like in English, désolé(e) doesn’t just signify an apology; it can also be used to express sadness that someone is experiencing a bad feeling or situation.
Another thing about je suis désolé(e) is that it can be adapted to any subject. For example: Nous sommes désolé s (We’re sorry).
So, this is by far the most flexible “sorry” in the French language, which means if there’s only one that you remember from this list, this should be it.
But there is one thing that doesn’t make this phrase completely effortless to use. Keep in mind that désolé is an adjective. This means it changes depending on who is sorry. If you’re a woman, you need to add an “e” at the end: désolée. If you’re talking about a group of males or a mixed group of males and females being sorry, you need to add an “s” at the end: désolés. And if you’re talking about a group of females being sorry, you have to add both an “e” and an “s” to the end: désolées .
« Je suis désolée, » Rose a dit, « j’ai mangé le dernier biscuit. » (“I’m sorry,” Rose said, “I ate the last cookie.”
Nous sommes désolés de t’avoir fait attendre. (We’re sorry to have made you wait.)
The classic “Sorry”
There are situations when saying the whole phrase Je suis désolé(e) may be too formal.
If you want to apologize to a friend, loved one, or young person in general, you can just say “Désolé(e)” .
You can also use Désolé(e) with people you don’t know if you meet them in an informal context.
Remember that since désolé is an adjective, it will have to agree with the subject. You can see how to make désolé agree with the gender and number of (a) subject(s) in the previous entry on this list.
Here are some examples:
- Désolée, je ne peux pas venir te chercher à la gare. (Sorry, I [a female] can’t come pick you up at the train station.)
- Désolés, nous serons en retard. (Sorry, we [multiple people of which at least one is male] will be late.)
The upgraded “I’m sorry”
Sometimes a simple “I’m sorry” feels a bit too light. In this case, you can add one of the following adjectives before désolé(e):
- Je suis vraiment désolé(e) (I’m really sorry).
- Je suis sincèrement désolé(e) (I’m sincerely sorry).
- Je suis tellement désolé(e) (I’m so sorry).
- Je suis profondément désolé(e) (I’m deeply sorry).
Note that you can’t say Je suis très désolé(e), because très means “a lot” and using it would imply there are different degrees to express how sorry you are. Most people consider that you’re either sorry or you aren’t. You also can’t say Je suis si désolé(e), probably for the same reason.
The extreme “I’m sorry”
If you want to show that you’re extremely sorry, especially when it comes to something very serious that you’ve done, or very bad news you’re reacting to, you can say Je suis navré(e).
Navré’s etymology shows its power: it’s derived from a word that meant “to wound by piercing or cutting someone”. As it evolved, it came to mean things like wounding, sorrow, and broken-heartedness. So, navré(e) isn’t to be used lightly.
When I was learning French, I fell in love with this word – it’s an easy way to express extreme grief, regret, and sympathy.
Keep in mind that, like désolé, navré has to agree with the gender and number of its subject(s).
The public transport “Sorry”
If you use the Paris Métro or go anywhere that’s crowded in France, you’re bound to eventually bump into someone. When this happens, simply say “Pardon”.
Pardon is easy to use because it doesn’t have to agree with a subject or object – it’s just a stand-alone word.
But using it can be confusing for us native English-speakers. Many of us would think of saying Excusez-moi instead, because it’s so similar to “Excuse me”. But while this phrase is somewhat similar, there’s a key difference.
The difference between Pardon and Excusez-moi is that Pardon implies you’re just asking forgiveness, while Excusez-moi often (but not always) comes with the idea of needing to get someone’s attention. In English, we use “Excuse me” this way at times, too – for example, “Excuse me, but I didn’t get a fork.” Since bumping into someone is a scenario where you especially want to make it clear that you didn’t do it to get attention or be noticed, Pardon is the logical choice.
You can also use Pardon if you don’t understand or hear what someone just said. In this case, simply raise the tone of your voice at the end so it sounds like a question.
The attention-getting “Sorry”
As I mentioned in the previous entry, Excusez-moi usually implies that you’re apologizing but also need to be noticed. A perfect example of when you’d use this is if you’re in a restaurant and would like to pay the bill. You can say Excusez-moi to politely get the waiter’s attention as they pass by your table.
Another very common way you’ll hear French people use Excusez-moi is when they exit a crowded train. In this case, they opt for Excusez-moi over the previous entry, Pardon because there’s the idea of “Please notice that I’m now getting off the train and move out of my way.”
Although needing to be noticed is often what Excusez-moi implies, French people also often use it to apologize for calling the wrong number:
Excusez-moi, je me suis trompé de numéro.
Sorry, I called the wrong number.
In this case, it’s simply to apologize – obviously the person on the other end of the line is aware of their presence.
Note that while Excusez-moi is the most common way to use this phrase, you can add whatever pronoun goes with the subject. For example, Excusez-nous. You could also technically change the imperative to the tu form, in the unusual situation where you’re trying to rather formally get the attention of someone you know (normally just call out their name or something).
The “It’s my fault”
Je suis désolé(e) is a perfectly fine way to say “sorry” in French, but French people rarely use it on its own. Often, they explain what they’re sorry for and add some kind of justification.
Unfortunately, there’s no formula for what to write or say after “sorry”, because it obviously depends on the situation, but here’s an easy way to make your phrase sound more natural: admit that’s it’s your fault and take responsibility for what happened.
To do that, you can use “c’est ma faute” (literally: it’s my fault).
Désolé, c’est ma faute, j’aurais dû y penser.
Sorry, it’s my fault, I should’ve thought of that.
Désolée, c’est ma faute, je ferai attention la prochaine fois.
Sorry, it’s my fault, I’ll be more careful next time.
As you can see, using c’est ma faute often involves verb tenses that go beyond the present simple. But if you’re just starting out with French, don’t worry. The most important part of an apology is sincerely meaning it, so even if you’ve only got Je suis désolé(e) down for now, a French person will understand and still appreciate it.
The formal “I’m sorry”
Je suis désolé(e) is enough in most formal situations. But there are cases when you may want to take formality to the next level.
In such cases, you can use “Veuillez m’excuser” (please accept my apologies) or “Je vous demande pardon” (I beg your pardon). You’ll often see these phrases in professional correspondence or on signs.
For example, it’s very common to see the phrase Veuillez nous excuser pour la gêne occasionnée (literally: Kindly excuse us for the difficulty/discomfort we might have caused; most often translated as “We apologize for the inconvenience”) included in signs or messages indicating a train is delayed or cancelled, or a building/transportation stop is closed for construction or another exceptional or unexpected reason. You can see a photo of an actual message like this, here.
As for Je vous demande pardon, note that you can also use it as a question when you don’t understand what someone just said. Consider it a (much) more formal version of pardon.
I’ve also seen Je vous demande pardon used to emphasize the fact that a person is really sorry for something, sort of on the same level as the “upgraded ‘I’m sorry’” phrases mentioned earlier. In this case, it would be used with te. For example, if you’re a fan of romantic movies or novels, you might just come across something like this:
Je te demande pardon. Je ne voulais pas te blesser. (Please forgive me. I didn’t mean to hurt you.)
Although you’ll probably come across them at some point, remember that these phrases are rarely used in everyday spoken French.
The harsh “I’m sorry”
There are phrases that always come before bad news.
Je suis au regret de vous informer is one of them.
It literally means “I am at the regret to inform you that…”, and is mostly used by companies when they want to tell you they won’t hire you despite your amazing CV or to tell you they can’t help you.
Note that this is really formal – a friend won’t give you bad news this way.
The controversial “I’m sorry”
If you go to France, you may hear people saying Je m’excuse. It’s fairly common here, probably because it takes a bit longer to say than Désolé(e) and feels a bit formal.
Some French people (and non-native speakers) see it that way. But many native French-speakers find this phrase rude. The reason lies in its literal translation. Instead of asking someone else for forgiveness, Je m’excuse literally means that you excuse/forgive yourself.
The author of this article in Le Figaro points out that the phrase may seem rude simply because there’s too much focus on its literal translation, and not on the speaker’s intention.
Others would say that it depends on how you use Je m’excuse. For instance, J posted in our comments section that, for them, it depends on the speaker’s circumstances. If you’re using it in reference to something that you really would need someone to forgive you for (like knocking them over), it’s rude. But if it’s used to apologize for any inconvenience due to circumstances that the speaker can’t control or change (For example, Je m’excuse mais je ne parle pas bien français), it’s fine. I was taught this in my French classes at school, as well.
Some French people feel this way, and others (including, as I discovered while researching this article, my French husband), still think Je m’excuse is rude, regardless of the circumstances.
So for those of us learning French, it’s best to know this phrase exists and understand what it means, but not use it.
If someone says it to you, considering that so many French people seem to use it without really thinking about its connotation, don’t be offended…unless of course the person does seem to be acting impolite.
How to make a detailed apology in French
The French don’t tend to like elaborate apologies (more on that a little later), but sometimes there’s more to be said than what this list covers. Luckily, there are lots of websites that can help, with suggestions of apologies for all sorts of occasions.
Personally, I like this site, which suggests apologies you can send as text messages. Most would work perfectly well in spoken French, too, or in an informal letter, card, or email. The examples on this list are shorter – sometimes even surprisingly brief – but could make good additions to a longer apology.
If you’d like to find some other, longer ways to say “sorry” in French, do an online search for “modèle excuses sms” (“model apology text messages”). I’ve suggested this search term because if you search for “modèle excuses,” you’ll find examples of formal letters of apology. Of course, those could be interesting if you need to write one on behalf of your business, so if that’s what you’re looking for, now you know how to search for that, too.
How to express other meanings of “sorry” in French
Although there are many similarities between the various ways to say “sorry” in French and English, one thing to keep in mind is that désolé and its cousins aren’t quite as vague (or versatile, depending on whom you ask) as “sorry” is in English.
For instance, one thing that’s often tricky for native English speakers is translating a sentence like “I’m sorry to be leaving Marseilles” into French. In French, “sorry” isn’t typically associated with regret. If you want to express that, you’d use a verb like regretter. In this particular case, you would say Je regrette de devoir quitter Marseille (I’m sorry I have to leave Marseille). Or you could simply express the emotion you’re feeling: Je suis triste de quitter Marseille (I’m sad to be leaving Marseille).
Another common way “sorry” is used in English, is to express one’s condolences. Although you can say Je suis désolé(e) to express your sympathies, if you want to be more specific, it’s best to use:
Mes condoléances /(Toutes) Mes condoléances – My condolences/My sincere condolences
In Canadian French, you’ll also see Mes sympathies.
Remember that you can replace the pronoun to fit who’s expressing their condolences, for example, Toutes nos condoléances (Our sincere condolences).
To find out other ways to express “sorry” in its myriad of different English meanings and connotations, in French, have a look at this helpful list.
False cognate alert!
Saying “sorry” in French is relatively straightforward. But when it comes to apology-related nouns, you’re bound to run into some faux amis.
The feminine word apologie tends to be a term that refers to championing a cause and is usually used in the phrase faire l’apologie de.
For example: Je fais toujours l’apologie du dessert. (I always champion the cause of dessert.)
The actual translation for the word “apology” is excuse. For English-speakers, this would imply someone giving a reason why they can’t do something. But in French, it comes from another meaning, related to our phrase “Excuse me”. Une excuse is how you say “an apology” in French most of the time.
Présenter ses excuses or demander pardon are the most common ways to say “apologize” in French. For example: La star a présenté ses excuses auprès de ses fans. (The star apologized to her fans).
You can find some variations and additional ways to say “apologize” in French, here.
How often do the French say “sorry”?
With at least fourteen different ways to say sorry, you may think the French are a very apologetic people. In fact, the varieties of “sorry”’s in French comes from their preference for precision, rather than a need to ask forgiveness.
There are no statistics (none that I’ve found, anyway) that show how often French people apologize, or why, etc. But as an Anglo-Saxon, I’ve found that the French are sparing with their “sorry”’s, unlike people from my own culture.
If you do an online search for something like “Countries where people apologize the most,” you’ll find articles, questions, and headlines that claim the English, Canadians, Americans, and Japanese in the running for the top spot. There’s even a survey that reveals the average Brit apologizes at least 8 times a day – and some apologize more than 20!
Of course, as linguist Edwin Battistella points out , the word “sorry” doesn’t always mean an apology in English. It can also express sympathy, regret, or serve as a polite exclamation. For example, many French people find it funny that the British will apologize for the weather, saying something like “Sorry about the rain.” Of course Brits know they have no control over the rain – the “sorry” here is more about expressing that they feel sorry for the person who has to experience the bad weather.
In French, an expression like Désolé(e) pour la pluie would be absurd. But even more universally understandable apologies would be considered too much or unnecessary.
The French are known for being a polite culture. It’s customary, for example, to greet shopkeepers, and even if you’re yelling at a stranger to tell them they’ve dropped something, you’d always address them as madame, mademoiselle, or monsieur. But apologies are another story.
This interesting article
about apologizing in cultures around the world includes some insight about
apologies in France.
Although I don’t necessarily agree with some of Vignoles’ other observations, I think this particular idea is an intriguing one. It’s true that the French tend to prefer concise, sincere statements regarding feelings, rather than “oversharing” or crying one’s emotions out from the rooftops. I’ve often written about how the French tend to be lowkey about expressing even big feelings like love; to them, it’s more about what you do, than what you say, since anyone can lie.
Just as French people find it silly, stupid, and/or insincere when Americans (like myself) go around constantly exclaiming how much we love everything, how sad something is, how amazing, all the time, it seems that over-apologizing also falls into that category.
It’s not that the French never say “sorry”, of course -otherwise, this article wouldn’t be here. It’s normal to genuinely feel contrite about anything from bumping into someone on the Metro, to hearing someone’s lost a loved one. But in general, when it comes to saying “sorry”, the French weigh their words.
Fellow Anglo-Saxons, this can be hard to adjust to if you stay for a long time or even move to France. When I first came to Paris to study abroad, many French acquaintances, not to mention the woman I rented a room from, often remarked that I apologized too much! Some would even pre-emptively tell me, “Don’t be sorry!” On my end, this was confusing, since I was only being polite.
Learning to be less generous with my “sorry” ‘s was one of the hardest cultural adjustments I’ve had to make since coming to live in France more than a decade ago. Luckily, after a few years, I got out of the habit of apologizing a lot – well, when I’m in France. When I visit or talk to friends and family in the US, I’m just as “sorry” as they are.
This isn’t a warning not to be offended if a French person doesn’t apologize. Personally, I’ve found that most reasonable people in any culture apologize when that seems like the right thing to do. But French people generally will be less open about talking about their feelings, so dragging up regrets from the past and apologizing for them or saying things like, “I’m sorry I made you feel that way,” won’t be frequent events.
Still, the biggest difference you’ll notice is not saying sorry for things that, if you took some distance from the situation, you could probably say there’s no need to apologize for in the first place. As a general rule, French people won’t apologize for sitting down next to you on public transit, the weather, debating something you’ve said, or personal choices that don’t particularly affect anyone else, like not being able to speak up or carrying too many bags.
So, if you come to France, be prepared to use, hear, and see apology-related vocabulary from time to time. But not eight to twenty times a day!
Over to you
Have you ever had to apologize in French? How did it go? Share your experience in the comments section below!