How to Say “Sorry” in German: Your One-stop Guide to Apologizing
Don’t know how to say “sorry” in German?
Learning to say “sorry” is a fundamental skill you need to save yourself from embarrassment and practice basic German etiquette.
Language barriers can lead to some pretty cringeworthy moments if you don’t know the right German words to wriggle your way out of situations that require small apologies or expressions of sympathy.
So let’s learn how “sorry” properly translates into German.
How to Say Sorry in German
I’m sorry (apologizing)— Es tut mir leid
So, you’ve made a blunder, whether on purpose or not, it’s time to make amends!
Es tut mir leid (I’m sorry) is a way of saying you’re sorry for something you’ve done, literally meaning “it does me sorrow”.
It is a bit of a stronger phrase than other candidates you’ll see in this article, and as such it’s better for situations where you genuinely feel bad about something. Think forgetting your friend’s birthday or knocking over a tray of glasses in a restaurant, rather than apologizing for a minor inconvenience like just bumping into someone on the street. (See Entschuldigung below for how best to give a snappier, less serious apology.)
You can even spruce up your amends with some adverbs if you’re feeling extra remorseful: Es tut mir echt leid (I’m really sorry) / Es tut mir furchtbar leid (I’m terribly sorry)
In more casual contexts, you’ll often see the es get dropped: Tut mir leid! (Sorry!)
Here’s some examples of using this phrase as part of your verbal atonement:
Es tut mir leid, dass ich Sie aufgeweckt habe. — I’m sorry that I woke you up. (Formal)
Es tut mir leid, dass ich Ihnen nicht helfen kann. — I’m sorry that I cannot help you. (Formal)
Tut mir leid, dass ich zu spät komme! — Sorry that I’m late! (Informal)
Tut mir echt leid, dass ich deinen Geburtstag vergessen habe! — I’m really sorry that I forgot your birthday! (Informal)
I’m sorry / I feel bad (feeling sympathy) — Das tut mir leid
Similarly to English, tut mir leid (I’m sorry) can also be used to express sympathy and offer your heartfelt feelings.
Changing the es to a das gives the impression you are sorry about something unfortunate happening to someone else.
Das tut mir leid is the kind of phrase you might bust out when your neighbor Florian’s little kitten has run away.
It’s very similar to the previous phrase with es, and is sometimes interchangeable. Just like the es, you’ll also see the das dropped here too in casual contexts — Tut mir leid…
You can also directly say who you are feeling sorry for by replacing the das with a person or group — Er tut mir leid (I feel bad for him). Remember, tut is the third person form of the verb tun here, so you need to change the verb depending on who you feel sorry for:
Du tust mir leid. — I feel sorry for you.
Die Kinder tun mir leid. — I feel sorry for the children.
Here are a few different examples of how you could give someone a verbal pat on the back:
Das tut mir leid… dein Hund war so lieb. — I’m sorry… your dog was so lovely. [when someone’s dog passes] (More formal)
Seine Familie tut mir leid. (I feel bad for his family)
Es tut mir leid, das zu hören. — I’m sorry to hear about that. (More formal)
Das mit dem Auto tut mir leid. — I’m sorry about your car. [when someone’s car breaks down] (More informal)
Sorry / excuse me — Entschuldigung
When you’re out and about, Entschuldigung is more likely the word you’ll end up using. You can use it when you bump into someone, want to get someone’s attention or want to give a more casual “sorry” than the more earnest es tut mir leid.
It functions as an apology, and you can imagine it like an “excuse me,” but for both before and after the excusable action when you’re dealing with strangers or people you don’t know.
Very literally broken down, Entschuldigung means something like “un-guilt,” with Schuld (guilt) at its root. The prefix ent- means to “reverse” or “undo,” and the suffix -gung is simply a common noun ending.
Because the word is a noun, the first letter should always be capitalized. It’s an extremely versatile word (which you’ll see below!) and is often used more than das tut mir leid.
Entschuldigung, können Sie mir bitte helfen? (formal) — Excuse me, can you help me, please?
Entschuldigung, darf ich mal durch? (formal) — Excuse me, can I get through?
Entschuldigung, dass ich zu spät bin! — Sorry I’m late!
More Ways to Say “Sorry” in German
These are some other extremely useful “sorry” or apology words in German that you’ll most likely hear and get to say when in a German-speaking country.
Asking someone to repeat what they’ve said — Wie bitte?
This phrase literally means “How please?” This “sorry” isn’t much of a sorry at all, but rather a request for clarification or repetition.
This is a great, handy phrase for any beginner to use if someone is speaking too quickly for your comprehension or you want to make sure you actually understood.
This kind of “sorry” in German is for when you didn’t quite catch something and you need the speaker to repeat. Another common usage is to drop the wie all together, and simply utter the bitte.
Wie bitte? Können Sie das bitte wiederholen? (formal) — I beg your pardon? Can you please repeat that?
Bitte? Das habe ich nicht mitbekommen. (informal and formal) — Sorry? I didn’t get that.
Bumping into someone — Sorry and Verzeihung
Verzeihung and “sorry” are both the instinctive, blurt-out type words that are hard-wired into people, the kind that you really don’t give a thought.
If you trip over someone’s toes, they just make their way out of your mouth before you fully realize what’s happening.
On one side of the spectrum, we have the trendy, English-derived “sorry” that’s casually dropped all over the place and increasingly popular.
Whether it’s favored for its relatively short length compared to Entschuldigung or young Germans insist on using English to be hip, “sorry” can be heard all around.
Remember, if someone approaches you with a “sorry” it doesn’t mean they have a foreigner tracking sense or necessarily speak English!
Verzeihung tends to be a bit more antiquated nowadays, and is considered a little stuffy or old. That said, you may still hear this word being thrown around from time to time. Think of “apologies” in English.
Asking for something / Asking for forgiveness — Entschuldigen Sie bitte
Look closely, because this is a different word. It’s true Entschuldigung and entschuldigen appear almost the same and have very similar meanings.
However, the former is a noun and the latter a verb—hinting that they’re used for different purposes.
Our verb friend, entschuldigen, can be used when directly addressing a person to ask for something, such as directions.
Although the noun form we learned above could technically be used for the same purpose, it’s a bit more indirect and informal if you’re trying to bother a stranger with a favor.
The exact English translation of entschuldigen shifts depending on context. When a noun follows the entschuldigen, like in the example below, forgiveness is being asked:
Bitte entschuldigen Sie die Störung. — Please forgive the disturbance. (Formal)
In the following example, the phrase is used before asking a question, as an apology for interrupting.
Entschuldigen Sie bitte! Können Sie mir bitte sagen, wo ich die Toilette finde? — Excuse me! Can you please tell me where the restroom is? (Formal)
When to Use “Sorry” in German Culture
Those from English-speaking countries, such as the United States, Canada and Britain, are known for their excessive use of “sorry.” Sorries are just an everyday part of life, even if no one actually means what instinctively slips out of their mouth.
However, the “sorry” system in German-speaking countries can be a bit confusing and overwhelming if you’re not familiar with how the German mind works.
Germans and their Austrian neighbors are notorious for seeming quite rude and unapologetic when committing what would be social faux-pas elsewhere. The older generation, especially, is guilty of falling under the rude German stereotype of plowing by without a care in the world.
A helpful start to prepare for a trip to Germany or to learn how to say the German equivalent of “sorry” is understanding when it’s actually necessary to apologize, excuse yourself or even ask for forgiveness.
Consider these situations and the differences between them:
- Getting someone’s attention.
- Asking someone to repeat what they said.
- Expressing sympathy.
- Knocking into someone.
- Asking for something.
Picking up on certain cultural nuances in these situations is easiest through simple observations of the bustling Germans around you.
If you don’t have any German speakers around you at the moment and would like to hear how these words and phrases are actually used in context, FluentU, a language learning program, uses authentic content to help teach German.
Through video clips from commercials, movie trailers and more, you see exactly how words and phrases, such as “I’m sorry” and “excuse me,” are used by native speakers.
Each video comes with interactive subtitles, and for extra learning support you’ll also have access to flashcards, key word lists and personalized quizzes.
Plus, if you want to study on the go, you can also use the FluentU iOS and Android apps.
Levels of Politeness When Apologizing
Now, if you’ve spent even a bit of time picking up German phrases, you may be familiar with the varying degrees of politeness in the German language.
- Knowing when to use du or Sie also applies to apologies and affects how thorough your amends should be. To stay safe, complete strangers should be thought of as Sie, unless you’re addressing children. Friends and close family are always a guaranteed du.
- Watching your manners also requires that you consider what’s actually going on in a situation. Did you trip into someone, or are you comforting a colleague for a loved one who passed? Condolences deserve more than a simple “sorry” and a pat on the back.
- You need to respond to the reactions of those involved. You don’t have to master apologizing in German to develop basic emotional intelligence. Opening the door in someone’s face may seem like the end of the world to you, but if Hans shrugs and keeps walking without even acknowledging what happened, it’s probably not worth running after him!
Now you’re ready to go mess up, trip others, console loved ones and grab every stranger’s attention on the street.
Go on, make a fool of yourself, because you’ll be ready to proudly show off every “sorry” in the book!
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