As a native English speaker, apologising comes naturally to me.
I bump into you? I’m sorry.
You bump into me? I’m sorry.
I buy a £3 coffee with a £20 note? I’m sorry.
English uses “I’m sorry” in three different ways:
- 1. To apologise
- 2. To ask for clarification
- 3. To give condolences
German also has ways of saying “I’m sorry” for all of those circumstances, which we will explore in today’s post.
1. To Apologise
As much as we might not like to admit it, we all mess up from time to time. Maybe you ate your roommate’s last yoghourt. Maybe you scratched your boss’ Audi. Maybe you shrunk your wife’s favourite jeans in the wash.
In those events (and anything you might have done that has hurt or annoyed someone else) you can use any of these phrases.
This is the most common and most flexible way to apologise in German, and can be used in both formal and informal settings
The middle part of the word, ‘Schuld’ is the German word for ‘guilt’ so you’re drawing attention to the fact that you feel guilty.
Entschuldigen Sie bitte
Pronunciation: ent-shool-de-gun zee bi-tuh
This is a formal form of Entschuldigung which can be used if you want to emphasise the fact that you’re being formal, or if you’re talking to a stranger.
Entschuldigen Sie vielmals
Pronunciation: ent-shool-de-gun zee feel-mals
Literally meaning “I’m sorry many times” we might translate it as “I’m very VERY sorry.” It’s something you can use in either formal or informal situations, when you’re not really sure if you’re going to be forgiven.
Es tut mir Leid
Pronunciation: ess toot meer lie-d
This is one of the more informal apologies on the list, and so should be used in informal settings.
It can also be used when someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, or to borrow something you don’t have.
Hast du ein Feuerzeug?
Do you have a lighter?
Nein, es tut mir Leid
No, I’m sorry.
Ich bitte dich um Verzeihung
Pronunciation: Ikh bi-tuh dikh um vair-ts-eye-hung
Literally, this phrase means “I ask for your forgiveness” and should be reserved for when you’ve done something very, very wrong.
Verzeihung is related to Ich bitte dich um Verzeihung, but the shorter form makes it slightly less intense.
It’s a little old-fashioned now, and mostly used by older generations (with younger generations opting for Entschuldigung instead.)
Not a typo! This is a common example of Denglisch (English which is used in German.) Often used by younger people as a way of sounding cool, ‘sorry’ is one that you probably don’t want to use if your aim is to practise your German words. But it is perfectly accurate German if you want to use it.
2. Asking for Clarification
Regardless of your fluency, there will be times that you don’t quite understand what someone has said. As a beginner, it might be because they’re using vocabulary you don’t know. At intermediate level, maybe native speed still feels a little too fast. As an advanced learner, maybe you’re on the phone as a truck rolls past and you don’t hear what the person said.
In all of those cases, a sorry for clarification will be necessary.
Yes, bitte does mean please. (And thank you.) But it’s also a good all-purpose “excuse me” when you can’t hear someone or when you haven’t understood what they’ve said.
(It can also be a ‘sorry’ for when you’re interrupting someone, or squeezing past them in a supermarket aisle.)
Kannst du das bitte wiederholen? / Können Sie das bitte wiederholen?
Pronunciation: can-st doo dass bi-tuh vee-der-hole-un / K-uh-nun zee dass bi-tuh vee-der-hole-un
Literally, this means can you repeat that please? We have two forms here, the ‘du’ form is the informal form and can be used with people you know well. The ‘Sie’ form can be used with anyone.
Remember, the rule of thumb is to use ‘Sie’ in any situation where you’re not sure about which ‘you’ to use. It’s impossible to be too polite in German, but you can offend people by using the wrong ‘you.’
‘Was’ literally means ‘what?’ and has the same lack of politeness as saying ‘what?’ when you haven’t heard someone in English.
We don’t recommend using this one (as we’ve said before, it’s important to be polite) but it’s one you might encounter in very informal situations.
3. For Condolences
Hopefully, these are phrases you’ll never need to use. But as you make more German-speaking friends and use German in your everyday life, they are phrases you might find yourself needing in order to express your sympathies.
Pronunciation: mine beye-leyed
Literally meaning ‘my pity’ or ‘my compassion’ this is probably closest to the English ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’
Das tut mir Leid
Pronunciation: dass toot meer lie-d
Related to ‘es tut mir Leid’ from earlier in the post, the ‘das’ here refers back to whatever has happened to the person you’re talking to. So it’s a way of saying “I’m sorry that thing happened to you.”
Das tut mir Leid für dich
Pronunciation: dass toot meer lie-d fur dikh
This one can be used when a friend or family member has lost a loved one but it’s also useful for redundancy, or when a friend is going through a tough time. It shows a level of care, and the ‘dich’ makes it informal, so it should only be used for close friends and family.
There you have a range of different ways to say “I’m sorry” in German. Hopefully you’ll not need to use them often, but they’re always useful to have up your sleeve in case you do!
Darren has been a language teacher for sixteen years, and has taught all ages from pre-school to adults. He has been a German speaker since he was 12 years old.
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