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Ask a Teacher: Sorry and Excuse Me

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Imagine that you are in a crowded place in an English-speaking country. You want to politely ask someone to move but are not sure how. Here is today's question from our reader Slava:

Question:

Hi! Would you like to explain the difference between "sorry" and "excuse me"? Thank you. - Slava

Answer:

Hello, Slava, and thanks for asking.

In many situations, both "Excuse me" and "Sorry" are suitable.

To get someone's attention

For example, you can use either "Excuse me" or "Sorry" to politely get someone's attention. Let's listen:

Excuse me, do you know where the Metro is?

Sorry, do you happen to have the time?

But when speaking to strangers, "Excuse me" is much more common.

To interrupt someone

We also use "Excuse me" and "Sorry" to politely interrupt a person or people to ask or tell them something. Listen:

Excuse me, everyone, the meeting is starting in five minutes.

Sorry, Shelly, can I get your opinion on a gift idea?

In a crowded place, knowing how to politely ask someone to move so you can pass them is very useful.
In a crowded place, knowing how to politely ask someone to move so you can pass them is very useful.

To ask someone to move

"Excuse me" and "Sorry" are also used to politely ask someone to move so that we can walk past them or to apologize for bumping into someone. Let's listen:

Excuse me, may I please get past? Thanks!

Sorry about that. It's really crowded in here!

You heard the second speaker say, "Sorry about that." This is a common way of saying, "I'm sorry,' when we make a small mistake.

To ask someone to repeat

And, we use "Excuse me" and "Sorry" when we need someone to repeat what they said. Have a listen:

Sorry, I didn't hear that. Can you say it again?

Excuse me, can you speak a little louder? We can't hear you in the back of the room.

Other times, only one of the phrases is suitable.

I'm sorry

We use "I'm sorry" to:

  • To tell someone that we regret something we did that affected the person in a bad way.​

    I'm so sorry for damaging your camera.

  • To share unpleasant news.​

    I'm sorry but all the rooms this weekend are taken.

  • Or to refuse an offer or request​.

    Sorry but I won't make it to dinner. I have to work late!

Excuse me

And we use "Excuse me" to:

  • Politely tell someone that we are leaving a place​.​

    Excuse me for a minute. I need to make a phone call.

And that's Ask a Teacher.

I'm Ashley Thompson.

To ask another question, simply go to our website: learningenglish.voanews.com.

Words in This Story

politely - adv. in a way that has or shows good manners or respect for other people

interrupt - v. to do or say something that causes someone to stop speaking

phrase - n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually form a complete sentence

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