Sorry Not Sorry! How to Apologize in Italian Like a Pro
“My condolences!” you exclaim, as your suitcase clips another traveler at the airport.
“Please forgive me…” you mutter, as you push past somebody in a crowded store.
“Excuse me, pardon me,” you say to the friend whose birthday you just forgot.
Wait, hold on. That doesn’t sound right…
Saying “sorry” is never easy.
But at least in English, we have an all-purpose word (“Sorry!”) that can function in any of the situations above. English speakers can default to the all-purpose term “sorry,” either for a minor social gaffe or a heartfelt expression of condolence.
In Italian, however, it’s not so simple.
Italian has a variety of terms used to mean “sorry” in all its gradations. Using a more formal “sorry” in a brisk social situation—or vice versa—can sound awkward and confusing, much like in the above examples.
You don’t want to make a cringe-worthy situation worse by using the wrong type of apology!
If you want to be able to navigate Italian social situations, you’ll have to learn to navigate the difference between “excuse me,” “pardon,” “sorry,” “I apologize” and everything in between.
Read on to learn everything you need to know about apologizing in Italian.
Sorry Not Sorry! How to Apologize in Italian Like a Pro
The Grammar Behind the Italian Apology
Saying sorry is difficult, emotionally speaking.
But it doesn’t have to be difficult, grammatically speaking! All you have to do is reinforce a few important grammar topics and you’ll be good to go.
First, to effectively apologize in Italian, you’ll want to read up on your reflexive verbs. As their name suggests, reflexive verbs are those that refer back to the speaker. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that so many phrases used to say sorry use reflexive verbs in Italian.
You’ll notice the first-person singular reflexive pronoun mi in phrases such as mi scusi (excuse me) or mi dispiace (I’m sorry).
The Imperative Mood
The next grammar tool you’ll need in your toolbox is the imperative mood. Italian “imperatives,” as you might guess, are used to give orders or commands, or in general to tell people what to do. Saying something like “excuse me” or “pardon me” requires that you speak in the imperative mood, since you are, in a way, “commanding” someone to excuse or pardon you.
For example, the conjugations of scusare used in the following section are all in the imperative mood.
Conjugating Verbs in Singular and Plural Forms
Finally, it’s important to remember that Italian has singular and plural forms of the word “you,” and therefore, it’s important to consider your audience when conjugating your verbs to say sorry.
Are you asking one person or a group to excuse you? In Italian, this makes a difference in how you phrase your apology. For example:
If you step on a friend’s shoe, you might say scusami per averti pestato. (Sorry for stepping on you.)
If you’re late to class and apologize to an entire group, you might say scusatemi per il ritardo. (Sorry for the delay.)
Notice the difference? In the first case, you use the singular imperative form scusami, to “command” one person to excuse you. In the second case, you use the plural imperative form scusatemi because you’re “commanding” more than one person.
Grammar review accomplished! Now, let’s move on to the most common phrases you’ll need to know in order to say sorry in Italian.
Saying Sorry Day-to-day: Expressions for Small Mistakes
To successfully interact socially in Italy, it’s critical you learn the linguistic and social distinctions between an apology, an excuse, a regret and a serious offense. Ask yourself the following question when deciding: Did I create a minor inconvenience or more lasting damage?
Let’s start with the more minor, day-to-day types of apologies.
No matter where you live, you’ll definitely need to learn how to politely express you’re sorry following a variety of small incidents and inconveniences. These are terms you might apply to strangers you bump into on a crowded street or if you arrive a little late to an appointment with friends.
If you’re talking to a stranger, someone much older than you or someone in a position of respect, you’ll want to use the more formal version of the verb.
Here are your choices:
Scusami: Sorry (When talking to one person, informal)
Mi Scusi: Sorry (When talking to one person, formal)
Scusatemi: Sorry (When talking to multiple people)
This is the most common daily term for sorry in Italian and you’ll hear it constantly in any busy Italian city.
While mi scusi/scusami/scusatemi is the most common term to apologize for a minor offense in Italian, you can also use the Italian equivalent of “pardon me”:
Perdonami: Pardon me (When talking to one person, informal)
Mi perdoni: Pardon me (When talking to one person, formal)
Perdonatemi: Pardon me (When talking to multiple people)
These phrases are slightly more formal in tone and more common than scusare when speaking with strangers.
Once you have these basic phrases down, you can add on conjunctions to create full sentences. For example:
Mi scusi/Scusami/Scusatemi se…: Sorry if…
Mi scusi/Scusami/Scusatemi per…: Sorry for…
Mi perdoni/Perdonami/Perdonatemi se…: Pardon me if…
Mi perdoni/Perdonami/Perdonatemi per…: Pardon me for…
Then, all you need to do is add a noun or verb clause to get to a full, detailed apology!
Mi scusi se l’ho interrotta: Sorry if I interrupted you.
Scusami per aver mangiato la tua pasta!: Sorry for eating all of your pasta!
Scusatemi per il disturbo: Sorry [to all of you] for the inconvenience.
Perdonami se ti ho offeso: Pardon me if I offended you.
Perdonatemi per avervi fatto perdere tempo: Pardon me for wasting [all of] your time.
Asking for Forgiveness: Expressions for Big Offenses
Imagine now that you’ve really messed up and need to express heartfelt remorse. Just as in English, there are countless ways to apologize and seek forgiveness in Italian.
Remember that, as with the above phrases, there are formal and informal forms to consider. It makes a difference whether you’re speaking to a friend or family member (in which case you use the informal versions), or with a supervisor or superior (in which case it’s best to stick to the formal versions).
Regardless of who you’re talking to, an earnest way to begin a sincere apology is with the following phrase:
Ho sbagliato: I made a mistake.
You can also continue to pile on remorseful language, depending on how badly you messed up. For example:
Perdonami per favore. Ho sbagliato: Please forgive me. I made a mistake.
Perhaps you’ve offended someone without meaning to. Don’t worry: this happens a lot when you first move to a new country! Here’s a helpful expression to use when you have to apologize after unwittingly committing an offense, particularly a cross-cultural one:
Non intendevo offenderti: I didn’t mean to offend you. (Informal)
Non intendevo offenderla: I didn’t mean to offend you. (Formal)
Non intendevo offendervi: I didn’t mean to offend you all. (When talking to multiple people)
If you wish to seek overt forgiveness, you must use the verb “perdonare.” Again, consider your audience. Is it a friend or a superior? Are you talking to one person or many?
Mi puoi perdonare?: Can you forgive me? (Informal)
Mi può perdonare?: Can you forgive me? (Formal)
Mi potete perdonare?: Can you [all] forgive me? (When talking to multiple people)
Finally, if you need to express a simple and sincere “I am sorry,” you can use the Italian term mi dispiace. This is the closest direct translation for “I am sorry” in Italian
Mi dispiace tantissimo: I am truly sorry.
Don’t use it in everyday situations. It’s excessive and unnecessary where a basic “excuse me” will often do just fine. But if you do mess up big-time, mi dispiace is a crucial term to have in your arsenal.
How to Practice Saying Sorry in Italian
The best way to practice would be to move to Italy and launch a foible-ridden saga that results in lasting offenses to the entire population of Italy. Then you could practice apologizing with every imaginable Italian expression!
On the other hand, this approach is both impractical and kind of scary. A more practical approach to learning and mastering these expressions is to use online resources to practice speaking as Italians do.
Here are a few places to start:
Make Flashcards with Pictures
To develop a deeper understanding of the contextual differences in apologies, create a flashcard deck with drawings or magazine clippings of social interactions ranging from mild incidents to major offenses. Write the appropriate matching expression you’d use to apologize in each setting. Take care to distinguish between minor inconveniences and more serious emotional interactions.
You can make electronic flashcard decks using Quizlet, where vocabulary words are automatically accompanied by memorable visuals.
Repeat Phrases and Practice
Practice saying the phrases you’ve learned here repeatedly, and visualize in which context you’d apply each of them. For help with correct pronunciations, visit Forvo, an audio pronunciation dictionary available in Italian.
To really cement your understanding, try roleplaying with a friend or Italian language partner. If you don’t have either, you can practice in front of a mirror. For additional grammar assistance, you can also consult WordReference.
In an ideal world, you’d glide seamlessly through every social interaction, never having to excuse yourself or apologize.
But mistakes happen, especially when moving abroad and interacting in a new language.
The good news is that most Italians are preternaturally sympathetic and appreciate any and all attempts non-native speakers make at communicating in Italian. Get out there, roll-up your sleeves, get dirty, mess up and apologize later.
Now, you have the tools to do it.