Learning how to say, "I'm sorry," in French can be as easy or as complicated as you need it to be depending on the situation. While simply saying 'sorry' can work, there are also much longer and much fancier ways to ask for someone's forgiveness.
The Basics: How to Say, "I'm Sorry," in French
The basic word or phrase for excusing oneself is désolé or je suis désolé. Just as one can mumble the word 'sorry' in English, one can simply say désolé in French. However, this should be reserved for extremely informal situations with people you know very well. A good general rule is to at least say Je suis désolé(e), even if you don't add anything more onto your apology.
Note that désolé is an adjective, which means that you have to make the word agree with your gender if you are writing down your apology. If you say you are sorry out loud, there is no difference in pronunciation between a male and a female being sorry for something. For writing, be sure to add an extra 'e' if you are female:
- Je suis désolé (male person talking to male or female person or group of people)
- Je suis désolée (female person talking to male or female person or group of people)
In English, you can say 'sorry' if you bump into someone accidentally. However, the French counterpart désolé is not used in this situation. Instead, you should say pardon or oh, pardon!
If you need to get by somebody in a shop or other public place, you would say excusez-moi or excusez-moi, madame (or monsieur), which means 'excuse me'.
Apologizing in French
It is also common to say what you are excusing yourself for. Therefore, you might say something like Je suis désolé(e) d'avoir oublié ton anniversaire (I'm sorry that I forgot your birthday). Explain what you are sorry for by starting with the preposition de if you are apologizing for something that happened in the past. If you are apologizing for something current, you can either use the conjunction mais (but), or simply add two expressions together:
- Je suis désolé(e), mais je ne peux pas vous aider. Je suis un touriste. (I'm sorry, but I can't help you. I'm a tourist.)
- Je suis désolé(e). Je ne veux pas y aller. (I'm sorry. I don't want to go there.)
Adding on such an explanation is a nice way of making your apology clear without making it too formal.
You can also add to the sincerity of your apology or the gravity of what it is that you are apologizing for by adding a few modifying words that strengthen your statement:
- Je suis vraiment désolé(e). (I'm very truly sorry).
- Je suis sincerement désolé(e). (I'm very sincerely sorry).
- Je suis navré(e). (I'm terribly sorry).
Much like French has fancy phrases for writing formal letters, apologies can take on a whole new level when you put them into a formal format. For example, in a letter where a potential employer tells an applicant that he or she was not chosen for the job, a phrase like one of these may be used:
- Je regrette de vous informer que... (I'm sorry to inform you that...)
- J'ai le regret de vous informer que... (Unfortunately, I have to tell you that...)
It may also be the case that you need to excuse yourself in a formal manner in writing. This may be done with phrases like these:
- Je vous prie d'accepter mes excuses. (I beg you to accept my apology). Note that while 'beg' sounds old-fashioned or overly strong in English, it is acceptable in French.
- Je vous prie de bien vouloir m'excuser. (I beg you to forgive me). Again, while this sounds outdated in English, it is a normal French phrase in a formal circumstance.
While it is easy enough to learn how to say, "I'm sorry," in French with basic words, it is also a good idea to learn the particular situations where a more elaborate apology may be in order. Learning this cultural knowledge is just one part of acquiring a foreign language. French social customs are different enough from American ones to warrant a serious study in how to act in social situations in France so as to avoid awkward encounters and embarrassing moments.