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2 min read
Lisa Stewart
October 13, 2023
Reading time
2 min read

The difference between "sorry" and "excuse me" in English

Apologizing is a delicate art. Many learners and even native speakers often ponder over the right moments to use "sorry" versus "excuse me" . . .
The difference between "sorry" and "excuse me" in English

The difference between "sorry" and "excuse me" in English

Apologizing is a delicate art, especially in a language as nuanced as English. Many learners and even native speakers often ponder over the right moments to use "sorry" versus "excuse me." These phrases, while seemingly straightforward, carry subtle distinctions that can significantly impact your social interactions.

In this guide, let’s dive deep into when and how to use each term to communicate apologies or get someone’s attention effectively and politely.

Using "excuse me"

"Excuse me" is your go-to phrase for minor etiquette slips that might disturb others, even slightly. Picture yourself in an important business meeting where you sneeze unexpectedly. A prompt "excuse me" either before or after the sneeze acknowledges the interruption and expresses your consideration for others present.

Woman sneezing

Whenever you need to courteously grab someone’s attention or ask for permission, "excuse me" is appropriate. For instance, navigating through a row of seated individuals at a crowded cinema requires you to inconspicuously move past each person. A soft "excuse me" as you do so is not just polite but also necessary.

In professional settings, "excuse me" is a respectful way to approach a busy colleague. Need a menu at a restaurant? A simple "Excuse me, could I have a menu, please?" is polite and effective.

When you need to interrupt someone engaged in a task, "excuse me" serves as a preemptive apology. Suppose a coworker is in a meeting, and you need their attention. Starting with "Excuse me, I didn’t realize you were in a meeting" not only acknowledges their engagement but also gently gains their attention.

Need to momentarily step away from a situation? "Excuse me" can also articulate this need respectfully. Whether it’s leaving the dinner table or stepping out of a meeting, phrases like "May I be excused?" or "Please excuse me for a moment" indicate your temporary departure.

Man asking to be excused from table

The power of "sorry"

On the flip side, "sorry" is your heartfelt response after causing inconvenience or making a mistake. It is an admission of guilt and a request for forgiveness. Whether you spilled popcorn at the movies or are late to an appointment, a simple "I’m sorry" expresses your regret and remorse for any trouble caused.

Woman saying sorry

"Sorry" is versatile, used for both small inconveniences and significant offenses. For instance, if you’ve inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings, a sincere "I’m sorry if I offended you" mends fences by acknowledging their hurt. Missed part of a conversation? "I’m sorry, could you please repeat that?" shows you’re attentive and eager to understand.

Man asking someone to repeat themselves

In situations demanding a stronger apology, I’m very sorry for the hurt I caused you" expresses a deep and formal sense of remorse and sincerity.


While "excuse me" acts as a courtesy buffer before you inconvenience someone, "sorry" is the balm applied after the fact, soothing any disruption or hurt caused. Mastering when and how to use these phrases will not only make your social interactions smoother, but also enhance your relationships by ensuring positive and respectful interactions.