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English Language & Linguistics

English Language


So sorry - my fault entirely

"Sorry" is such a characteristic and idiosyncratic English word. The dictionary definition hardly helps learners of the language to understand. "An apology" doesn't do justice to the nunaces of its use.

The article below was published on the BBC website following an invitation to describe British quirks in 212 words. It confirms what a Turkish pupil of mine once told me. She heard that if you stood on a man's foot it was he would say sorry when it should have been you. She tried this out successfully several times!

Visitors should be wary of the word sorry - it has endless nuances.
For instance, if I inadvertently step on your toe we should both immediately say sorry. I'm sorry for having stepped on your toe - you say sorry to imply it was your fault really, or at least no one is quite sure, so both should say sorry. It also means no hard feelings. But when I say "sorry to bother you, but…" I'm not really apologising, just prefacing a request for some trivial favour, or bit of information. Such as: "Sorry to bother you, but do you have the time?" However, if you hear "sorry?" as a question you're most likely being asked to repeat something not quite heard or understood.
But don't get carried away with your new knowledge. If someone pronounces sorry a "so-ree" with a strong emphasis on both syllables then that is bad news. They are not sorry at all, just being sarcastic. Maybe someone has mildly offended them - perhaps by accusing them of the unforgivable sin of queue-jumping. Their "so-ree" then means "shut it mate".
But occasionally, very occasionally, sorry really does mean sorry. If someone says: "I'm so sorry to hear your mother has died" they probably are sorry. Not always, but probably.

Mike Pollak, Birmingham
posted at

  • "Pardon" is perhaps less used than sorry. What other alternatives are there to the word "sorry"? When might you use them?
  • What is the function of the word "actually" as in, "I'm from London, actually"?
  • Certain words or phrases are used when we agree with a speaker. "Absolutely", "quite" and "indeed" are three. Can you think of others? When would each of these be used in conversation and what are the differences between them?

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