Things to teach about apologizing

By Alex Case

…and how to do it

1. Excuses/reasons
In some cultures it is impolite to give a reason why something happened, as this can be seen to be taking away from your apology by giving excuses. This is true in the very strong apology “There is no excuse for what I did”, but generally in English not giving a reason why something happened shows that you can’t be bothered to explain, leading to conversations like “Sorry I’m late” “Well, where were you?” For reasons of culture or lack of language, students might find themselves involved in conversations like this or (worse) offending people and never finding out that they have. Fun practice for the language of giving excuses includes matching funny excuses (available on many work-related humour sites on the internet) to what they were excusing themselves for, e.g. “The dog ate it” to “I’m sorry I didn’t hand in my homework”. Another good activity is competing to give the most believable reason for something inexcusable like taking a bath with your wife’s mother.

2. Apology, reason and promise
The topic above can be extended to give students a general pattern for a standard apology in English, which is an apology (“I’m sorry”/”I apologise”/”Please excuse my lateness”), then a reason (“I missed the bus”/”My alarm didn’t go off”/”Someone had spiked my drink”), and finally a promise of future action (“I’ll buy a new one this afternoon”/”I’ll be more careful next time”). This means that you can bring apologies (a surprisingly neglected topic) into lessons on conjunctions (like “because”) and will for promises. There are also fun activities you can do with these points like spotting the ones that don’t fit (e.g. “I’m sorry your book is looking a bit bashed up. This is because it was a manual and I had only ever driven automatics before. I promise to keep my mouth shut next time”) and then swapping bits around to make ones that do make sense.

3. What you repeat
In some languages it is usual to repeat the actual apology word, the equivalent of running up to your friend while saying “Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.” This sounds almost comical in English, and the usual rules of repeating yourself as little as possible in English apply to apologizing too, e.g. in this situation “Sorry. I do apologize. You must have been waiting for ages. I’ll try and make it up to you…” (And at the end of the meeting) “Sorry again for keeping you waiting”. The exception to the rule is saying “I am so so so so soooooo sorry”. You can practice having a range of apologising phrases with a board race- half of the class line up in front of the right half of the whiteboard where “Apologizing” is written at the top and the other half on the left have to write under “Thanking”. The teams race to write as many different correct phrases in their category as they can, each person only writing one phrase before they pass the pen and go to the back of the line.

4. Adverbs
Many learners use “so” and “very” interchangeably, and doing the topic of apologies is a good chance to show that there are subtle differences. In this case, “so” is almost always stressed and so has the same impact as (the much less common) “I am VERY sorry” and much more than “I’m very sorry”. This can be practiced by them listening to different phrases and giving each one between 1 and 5 points depending on how strong the apology sounds. After comparing answers on this, give students cards with the number of points on to show them how strong their apology should be in the next roleplay. Their partner then guesses what number they had on their card at the end of the roleplay.

5. Word stress
As is clear in the examples above, which words you stress can have a big impact on the meaning and strength of apologies and doing apologies is a good chance to tackle which words you should emphasize. Another example is “I’m sorry” and “I AM sorry”, where the very strong second version is the only time we don’t use the contraction “I’m” (the difference in meaning of using and not using contractions being another important point that students often miss out on). Stressing every single word, especially if the intonation is flat (see below), can also make the students sound sarcastic. The best way to tackle this point is to read out or play two dialogues with the same phrases but different words stressed in different dialogues, asking students to listen the first time for the difference in pronunciation of the phrases and the second time for how the situations and hence the meanings of the apologies are different.

6. Intonation
This is another neglected area of the language that can be usefully tied to apologies because it has more impact here than in many other situations. For example, going down at the end of the “so” in “I’m SO sorry” can make students sound like they don’t really mean it (like me as a teenager “apologizing” to my parents). This can again be examined by students analysing good and bad intonation in context, guessing whether people really mean it by what they say in the rest of the conversation. They can then practice this by being given a card that says “Really apologize” or “Be sarcastic” telling them how they have to respond to their partner’s complaints. Alternatively, they can compete to make the same phrase sound the most polite and then to make the same phrase sound the most sarcastic they can. Note that unmusical students gain very little from being told when intonation goes up and down, so work on word stress, increasing range and copying intonation are generally much more useful.

7. Eye contact
In some cultures, people apologizing tend to keep their eyes down to show contrition, but a stereotypical American Dad disciplining their teenage kid might assume that means the excuse is just a lie and tell them to “Look at me when I am talking to you”. I tend to introduce this with the story “Juries in American often assume that witnesses from Japanese companies are lying or feeling guilty. Why do you think that misunderstanding happens?”- Answer: “They tend to look avoid eye contact with the judge and jury to show respect or to sit up very straight for the same reasons. To Americans this makes them look stressed and/or shifty.” This topic can be just as useful for students whose culture would keep eye contact when apologizing but might come across people whose culture is different. Another way of approaching the subject is to tell students to mime certain attitudes with just their faces and eyes until their partner guesses which one it is (such as “confident”, “arrogant”, “defiant”, “apologetic”, “lying” and “guilty”), and then discuss cultural universals.

8. I’m afraid that
I’m not sure why you can’t say this when you can say “I am confident that”, but “I’m afraid I haven’t” is the much more natural English phrase that students tend to avoid.

9. Past apologies
One difference is the one between “I’m sorry to hear that” (used when receiving bad news) and “I’m sorry I heard that” (I wish he hadn’t told me that- rarely used). A similar but more common confusion is when trying to produce “I am sorry to have + past participle”, e.g. “I am sorry to have given away your secret”. This can be explained by telling students that the present tense of “to be” shows that the feeling is still true and therefore doesn’t minimize the apology, whereas “I was sorry to break his vase” means the feeling is finished and could even mean “…but now I know that it was a fake, I don’t feel so bad.”

10. Regret
Students tend to misuse this verb in apologies. The most common mistake is using it for normal apologies in conversation, whereas in English it is very formal and usually a written form. Another possible confusion is between “I regret to inform you that…” (regret + infinitive for announcements of bad news) and “I regret informing you that…” (regret + ing, where the second verb is something that has already happened, therefore making this structure very different in meaning and very rare with “inform”).

11. Excuse me
This is mainly used to get someone’s attention or asking to get past, and that is how I teach it. There are exceptions like British people using “Sorry” to get past on the underground (especially to avoid having to repeat themselves) and “Please excuse me for phoning you at this early hour”, but unless students ask these are usually best ignored! An amusing way of introducing the topic is with dialogues where people use the wrong one, e.g. (to a waiter) “Sorry” “Why, what did you do?”

12. Pardon me/I beg your pardon
A use of “Pardon me” that students are hardly ever familiar with is after you burp. “(I) beg your pardon” is used in similar circumstances to show a child that you heard the rude word or noise that they made, a use that I have heard many more times than the “I (do) beg your pardon (for…)” for apologies that students are often familiar with. It can be difficult to tackle the topic of letting off wind in class though!

13. The right amount of apologizing
I bring this point up with another apparently true story on the topic of cultural misunderstandings- “A Japanese company writes to an American supplier hoping to have their machines fixed or replaced and are very annoyed just to be given advice of how to fix them themselves. What happened and why?”, to which the answer is “The Japanese started the letter with ‘We are sorry to bother you but we are having some problems with…’, which the Americans took as a sign that the Japanese were accepting that they were at fault for the problem and only asking for help”. Needless to say, some nationalities have the exact opposite problem, annoying their counterparts in the UK by never saying they are sorry with phrases like “I disagree” rather than the much more British “I’m afraid I can’t agree”.

14. Apologizing without accepting responsibility
A more practical and recent cultural difference is the need of American companies and now many others to apologize without that statement being taken as an acceptance of having done something wrong and so being ammunition when the customer sues or threatens to. This is a difficult thing to do even for a native speaker, which can lead to some amusing examples of convoluted or downright rude “letters of apology” that students can laugh at and try to improve. This topic is especially good for students in customer service or studying English for law.

15. Formality
Students often sound overly formal and old fashioned, for example by using written forms like “I regret…” when speaking. You can overcome this by marking all phases you give them with “written”, “slang”, “formal” etc, or by asking them to look at a dialogue, email, official notice etc and spot which ones are used in each. More informal phrases you might like to teach them include “Whoops. Sorry (dude)”, “My bad” and “Yikes”.

Written by Alex Case for February 2009
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.


  • Alex Case says:

    Sorry for the broken link below- my worksheets are now moved here:

  • Samantha Walkington says:

    It’s really interesting to break the language and analyse it this way.. really useful.. thankyou

  • mimi says:

    the word apologize means sorry but with your explanations and examples you make it a word we can say it with great happiness

  • Consuelo Paez says:

    Hello. Very valuable tips to bridge the gap of the textbook environment with real life. Thanks for your help!

  • Alex Case says:

    Here is one of my worksheets

  • Alex Case says:

    1. You can’t say “I’m afraid that”. “Confident” is not connected to apologies, but is just an example of an adjective that can be used with that structure and therefore shows that there is not a more general explanation you can give students when trying to explain why they must say “I’m afraid + S+ V”

    2. For example “That really is unfortunate” or “I am sorry to hear that” rather than “We apologise”

  • Fred Yau says:

    Dear Alex Case, I really appreciate your hard work! Thank you so much for sharing such an interesting & useful topic with us. I’ve just finished reading this essay. I found it really useful & helpful. I’ve learned a lot. Here I have some questions for you.

    1. I’m sorry to tell you that I’m a bit confused at your explanation on “I’m afraid that”. You mean it’s good for us to use “I’m confident that” rather than “I’m afraid that”. And I have another question here. I just can’t think of any situation in which we will use “I’m afraid that” to say sorry. Could you please give me some examples?

    2. In number 14 you’ve talked about “Apologizing without accepting responsibility”, I think it’s really interesting. Could you please give me some examples on this? Or could you please kindly tell me where I can get some examples on this?

    Looking forward to your reply.

    Fred Yau

  • xiomaira says:

    Tank you very much for sending to me this information about apology. It was very useful to read its content, besides the song is another funny way to learn english.

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