How to Apologize in English

Samantha Ruff
December 9, 2019 ·
6 min read
How-to

What is language? It’s how we communicate, right? It is, but language is also an extension of our culture – perhaps the most obvious example we have of it, other than perhaps our food.

What that means is that, when we learn another language, we are learning another culture – we cannot do one without the other. And in different cultures there are different ways to say ‘hello’, say ‘goodbye’, say ‘bless you’ when you sneeze, and of course to say ‘sorry’. Not only are the words important, but also the approach is vital too.

And sometimes a ‘sorry’ is totally necessary. In English, we tend to say ‘sorry’ a little too frequently. We say it if we haven’t heard someone (replacing ‘pardon me’), and we say it if we want to attract someone’s attention (replacing ‘excuse me’). In fact, sometimes people even say ‘sorry’ in English when another person has bumped into them on public transport. Certainly, some cultures can find the English-speaking habit of always saying ‘sorry’ funny and even a little unauthentic. They have a point!

However, here we are not talking about saying ‘sorry’, but really apologizing. You have made a mistake. For example, you have missed an important meeting because you forgot about it, or you are late for work because you slept in. It happens, we are only human. But what is needed now is an honest and sincere apology. Not doing this effectively can make the situation worse.

With that in mind, here’s how we can properly apologize in English.

Step 1 – Admit your mistake

Apologizing must always begin with the acknowledgment that you were wrong, or that you made a mistake. If you do not do this, then your apology can seem hollow, or simply not meant (it doesn’t come from the heart.) Here are some suggestions:

“It was a bad mistake on my behalf to miss the meeting today.”

“I’m afraid I totally forgot about the meeting.”

“I made an error in missing the meeting.”

“It was an oversight on my behalf to miss the meeting.” (formal)

Step 2 – Apologize

Get that apology in nice and early. If you wait too long, it may cast doubt that it is coming at all, and it may seem that you do not see saying ‘sorry’ as a priority. It is, so you need to show that!

“I’d like to apologize.”

“Sincere apologies.”

“I’d like to say I’m sorry.”

‘Deepest apologies.”

Step 3 – Offer an explanation (not an excuse!) And say how can you avoid it in future.

An explanation of what happened is usually expected, but it is very important that you do not try to make excuses. Again, excuses can suggest that you do not really see it is as a mistake, or that it is not your fault. Sometimes it really isn’t your fault, but do not try hard to pass this off as the case, as surely you were culpable in some way (meaning that, if you had done things a little differently, the mistake would not have been made).

Also, make some suggestions as to how you will plan against repeating the mistake in the future or at least reassure by saying that the mistake will not be made again. This is important to maintain confidence in you.

“I overslept and didn’t hear my alarm, which won’t happen again as I will set two alarms in the future.”

“The train was delayed, but I will take an earlier one in the future.”

“I failed to check my calendar, but I have now set a reminder on my phone.”

Step 4 – Offer thanks

Thanks? Thanks for what? For understanding and accepting your mistake of course. Now, obviously, your boss, or whoever it is, doesn’t have to accept it, but this is the point of apologizing. So, try to pre-empt the understanding, which helps to smooth the future relationship.

If the mistake has been accepted:

“Thank you so much for being so understanding.”

“It’s very good of you to accept my mistake.”

“It is very kind of you to forgive my error.”

If the mistake has not yet been accepted:

“I really hope you can accept my apologies and I can make it up to you in the future.”

“If we can work through this, I will prove my worth.”

Now it’s time to put it all together

Dear ____

It was a bad mistake on my behalf to miss the meeting today. I’d like to apologize. I overslept and didn’t hear my alarm, which won’t happen again as I will set two alarms in the future.

Thank you so much for being so understanding.

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