Your One-stop Guide to Saying “Sorry” in German
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, expressions of sympathy and other German equivalents to ways in which we might use the English word “sorry.”
So let’s learn how to properly apologize in German.
Gauging When to Use “Sorry” Equivalents in German Culture
Those from English-speaking countries, such as the United States, Canada and Britain, are known for their excessive use of “sorry.” You cross paths with someone coming the opposite direction—sorry. You and a stranger both reach for the door simultaneously—sorry. Accidentally touch someone on public transportation? Sorry!
Sorries are just an everyday part of life, even if no one actually means what instinctively slips out of their mouth. However, 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.
The “sorry” system can be a bit confusing and overwhelming if you’re not familiar with how the German mind works.
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.
In Berlin, for example, very few locals will bother apologizing for stepping on your toes when cramming into the U-Bahn (subway).
For those diligently strengthening their cultural understanding at home, FluentU videos provide excellent opportunities to pick up on these vital pieces of the German lifestyle.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
With the authentic German media immersion you’ll get through FluentU, you’ll start to understand the culture better as your German fluency increases. Sign up today for your free trial…you won’t be sorry!
Watch Your Manners! Gauging How Politely You Should Apologize
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.
Unsurprisingly, 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 or animals (chances are you won’t need to apologize to animals). 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.
Additionally, 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 with an apology balloon!
Without further ado, here are some essential words and phrases to start saying sorry in German.
5 Ways to Say “Sorry” in German
Mark Twain wouldn’t have dubbed German “The Awful German Language” if it was as easy as having just one way to say “sorry.”
Even if Germans were apologetic about having an over-complicated apology system, you would still need to learn it to be able to understand them! That leaves no choice but to study up.
These are extremely useful “sorry” or apology words in German that you’ll most likely hear and get to say when in a German-speaking country.
1. Getting someone’s attention — Entschuldigung!
For anyone not very familiar with German pronunciation, Entschuldigung is unfortunately one of the most difficult words to sound out. Despite its spelling, the word Entschuldigung is pronounced more along the lines of en•shool•dee•gung, with the “t” almost inaudible.
Very literally broken down, Entschuldigung means something like “un-guilt,” with die 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.
Of course, yelling “Unguilt!” to get someone’s attention makes no sense at all, but in the correct context the word tells others that you’re politely asking for something. It may seem too short to be used politely, but it’s perfectly okay to approach strangers with this one-word attention-getter.
Here’s a situation in which Entschuldigung is appropriate to use:
Entschuldigung! Können Sie mir bitte helfen? (formal) — Excuse me! Can you help me, please?
This versatile word has many more uses than just asking someone on the street for help, but more on that below.
2. What did you say? — Wie bitte?
Literally: “How please?” This “sorry” isn’t much of a sorry at all, but rather a request for clarification or repetition. If you’re talking to a security guard at a concert and can’t hear a thing, you may say “I’m sorry?” as a question. It would be silly to assume you’re apologizing for not being able to hear!
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.
Bitte? Ich habe das nicht mitbekommen. (informal and formal) — Sorry? I didn’t get that.
Wie bitte? Würden Sie das bitte wiederholen? (formal) — I beg your pardon? Would you please repeat that?
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.
3. Expressing sympathy — Das tut mir leid
Although this sounds something like “the stool is light,” das tut mir leid means word-for-word “that does me sorrow.” As you can probably make out from the literal translation alone, “das/es tut mir leid” is the kind of phrase you bust out when little Florian’s kitten runs away.
When someone is hurt or had something negative happen to them, this phrase can be used to express sympathy and offer your heartfelt feelings. Generally, it’s an expression to use when you’re sorry (for someone), even if it’s because of something you did. You wouldn’t use this phrase to ask for forgiveness, however.
Here are a few different examples of how you could give someone a verbal pat on the back:
[Someone’s dog passes] Das tut mir leid… dein Hund war so lieb. (more formal) — I’m sorry… your dog was lovely.
Es tut mir sehr leid, aber ich kann Ihre Perspektive einfach nicht akzeptieren. (formal) — I’m very sorry, but I simply cannot accept your perspective.
Tut mir leid, dass ich so spät ankomme! (informal) — Sorry that I’m arriving so late!
4. Bumping into someone or other minor disturbances: Entschuldigung/Verzeihung/Sorry
Entschuldigung/Verzeihung/Sorry are 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.
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, although definitely not to the degree of Entschuldigung and sorry. Think of “pardon me” in English.
On the opposite 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 and somehow knew to use English!
It’s important to note that this Entschuldigung is the same word used to get someone’s attention, as previously explained above. And you best memorize the spelling, because this next one can throw you off!
5. Asking for something: Entschuldigen Sie bitte
Now you’re thinking, “hold up, something seems oddly familiar here” or “why am I seeing this impossible-to-pronounce word yet again?” Allow us to explain. This isn’t an attempt to mess with you to drill Entschuldigung into your head!
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 twice 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. (formal) — Please forgive the disturbance.
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? (formal) — Pardon me! Can you please tell me where the restroom is?
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!