I’m sorry, over-achievers.
My apologies, perfectionists.
When it comes to learning a language, making mistakes is inevitable.
Sometimes those mistakes will be embarrassing. Sometimes, they might even be offensive.
That certainly doesn’t mean that you should stop trying out your French. It doesn’t mean you should keep your mouth shut unless you’re 100% sure your grammar is impeccable.
However, it could be helpful to know how to say “sorry” in French.
Hopefully you’re not planning on robbing any banks in France, but making language mistakes, bumping into someone or saying something rude in anger can happen to anyone.
It may not always be pleasant, but being able to excuse yourself, apologize and accept responsibility will expand not only your French skills, but also your ability to truly connect with native French speakers.
When “Sorry” Just Isn’t Enough
You may be wondering why you should study how to apologize. Do you really need several ways to express regret?
Some ways of apologizing, as with all French communication, are more or less formal than others. Apologizing to a close friend is different from excusing yourself to a stranger or in a professional context.
Plus, we know intuitively that not all wrongs are equally heinous. Overestimating your charitable donations on your tax forms isn’t the same thing as murdering someone. So you’ll need different apologies in different settings.
Similarly, accidentally bumping into someone… c’est pas grave (it’s not serious). However, using a word in French that you didn’t realize was a cuss word or a racial slur could be deeply hurtful.
For instance, I was at a conversation café for people to practice French where a woman used the word nègre (a French equivalent of the “n-word”) when she meant simply noir (black). She was hurriedly corrected and embarrassingly, sincerely apologized.
Nevertheless, it was understood that we were all learning, so it didn’t create a major situation. Remember, even if you’re talking with native speakers (great for you!) they’ll usually be patient with language learners and understand if you happen to make a faux pas.
But it certainly won’t hurt to know how to apologize when necessary.
Besides, French is a beautiful and wonderfully rich language. Although different words or phrases may have similar meanings, they’ll nevertheless communicate subtly different things. In order to be an advanced and ultimately fluent speaker, you’ll need to become comfortable with these nuances.
Désolé! 6 Ways to Say Sorry in French and Ease That Guilty Conscience
Je Suis Désolé(e) — I am sorry
Je suis désolé(e) is by far the most common and one of the broadest ways to apologize. It’s essentially the equivalent of “I am sorry” in English.
Although expanding your vocabulary is always encouraged, if you only remember one of these ways to say “sorry” in French (or aren’t sure which to employ in a certain context), je suis désolé(e) is usually a safe bet.
Je suis désolée, mais je dois partir tôt. (I am sorry, but I have to leave early.)
Good news! Grammatical gender won’t affect how this phrase is pronounced. However, if you’re writing it out, you’ll need to add an “-e” for the female form.
In a casual situation, you can also simply say, “désolé(e),” just as someone might say “sorry” instead of the full sentence.
On the other hand, you can take it a step further and say, “Je suis vraiment désolé(e)” (“I am very sorry”) or “Je suis tellement désolé(e) (“I am so sorry”).
To explain or confess what you’re apologizing for, you may employ de and an infinitive verb.
Je suis désolé de vous téléphoner si tard. (I am sorry to call you this late.)
Another construction is similar: que (that) and an independent clause (a phrase that could stand alone as its own sentence) with the verb in the subjunctive.
Je suis désolé que le poulet soit un peu brûlé. (I am sorry the chicken is a little burnt.)
Je Regrette — I am sorry
Je regrette is less common, but its use is similar to that of je suis désolé(e).
Just as it looks and sounds, je regrette literally means “I regret,” but is generally translated and used as “I am sorry.”
You may also employ de and an infinitive verb or que and an independent clause with a subjunctive verb, as with je suis désolé(e).
Je regrette de vous téléphoner si tard. (I am sorry to call you this late.)
Je regrette que le poulet soit un peu brûlé. (I am sorry that the chicken is a little burnt.)
Pardon — Pardon
This one is quite similar to its English counterpart. It stands alone and is most commonly used to ask someone to repeat what they said, or as a simple apology upon bumping into someone.
However, you can issue a stronger apology by employing a phrase closely related to pardon: pardonnes-moi (forgive me) for the informal tu form, or pardonnez-moi (forgive me) for the formal vous form.
Pardonnez-moi. C’était un accident. (Forgive me. It was an accident.)
Hear how native speakers use this phrase (as well as the one below) in this French sketch comedy video. You can find this video—along with other real-world videos like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—on FluentU with interactive subtitles and personalized lesson features. Don’t have a FluentU account? Sign up for a 15-day free trial to get immediate access on your computer, iOS or Android device.
Excusez-moi — Excuse Me
Yay! Another one that’s similar to English. Excusez-moi also has a similar function as pardon: asking for clarification, getting onto a crowded métro train, etc.
Excusez-moi. Qu’est-ce que vous avez dit? (Excuse me. What did you say?)
Although this term is more likely to come up in a formal situation, keep in mind that the informal version of this phrase is excuses-moi (taken from the tu conjugated form of excuser).
There’s another very helpful phrase that comes from excuser (to excuse): Excusez-moi de vous déranger. (Excuse me for bothering you.)
French culture tends to be formal. Thus, sparking a conversation with a stranger can be a tricky operation. Opening with excusez-moi de vous déranger is a polite way to ask for help. Starting with such a show of respect can make someone more willing to give you directions or answer a question.
Excusez-moi de vous déranger. Savez-vous où se trouve la boulangerie? (Sorry to bother you. Do you know where the bakery is?)
C’est (de) Ma Faute — It’s My Fault
Sometimes when I was a kid, I would become very angry and, when told to apologize, could only manage a stiff “sorry.” It was obvious that I was just going through the motions.
If you wish to emphasize your sincerity, you could go a step further than désolé(e) and confess that you did indeed do something wrong with c’est ma faute or c’est de ma faute. The former version is technically correct but the latter is very common.
This could be a good component of a longer apology or explanation, the kind you might give upon offending a friend.
C’est (de) ma faute. C’était moi qui a pris ta parapluie. Je ne savais pas que c’était à toi. (It’s my fault. It was me who took your umbrella. I didn’t know it was yours.)
Similarly, you could say c’était (de) ma faute (it was my fault) if you’re discussing a past offense.
Veuillez Nous Excuser — Please Excuse Us
This last one is more for comprehension than for usage. That is, unless you want to start a hit French business!
What we mean is that this phrase is very formal and rarely said aloud. It’s most often used in a business or professional context, such as in a letter from a company or on a sign at a store.
Veuillez nous excuser de cette erreur. (Please excuse us for this error.)
For another example and humorous vignettes, check out this article in the French newspaper Le Monde (The World). It features stories from several readers about the worst neighbors they’ve had.
Excuse me for taking your time, even though it was time well spent.
My apologies if reading this has made you more passionate and knowledgeable about French. It’s our fault.
Forgive us for spreading the French bug to you.
Please accept these many ways to say “sorry” in French!
And One More Thing…
If you want to learn spoken French, then you will not want to miss FluentU. With FluentU, you can learn French from music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks. FluentU lets you learn real French, the same way that people speak it in real life. FluentU has a wide variety of interesting videos like movie trailers, funny commercials and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native French content within reach. With interactive captions, FluentU lets you tap on any word to see an image, definition and useful examples.
For example, this is what you see when you tap on the word suit:
And FluentU’s “learn mode” lets you learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you are learning.
All along, FluentU keeps track of vocabulary that you are learning. It uses that vocab to recommend you examples and videos and give you a fully personalized experience. Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play stores.
Rachel Larsen is a lifelong francophile and freelance writer who dreams of living in France one day. She’s currently a student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. To learn more, visit her LinkedIn page.
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