Have you ever bumped into someone on a train platform in Germany, their phone fell down, into the tracks of the train and before anyone could retrieve it the train arrived and crushed it? No? Because I have. And saying “I’m sorry” is the very least you could do at that moment.
Saying I’m sorry can be uncomfortable for a lot of people. You admit to having done something wrong which makes you vulnerable. It’s very important however if you want a second chance with someone. In this post, we’ll look into all of the different ways of saying sorry in German and discover which expression to use in every situation.
Sorry in German at a Glance
Could you repeat that please? (Informal)
Could you repeat that please? (Formal)
Huh? (Very informal)
I’m very very very sorry
This causes me pity. I'm sorry.
I ask for your forgiveness
I’m sorry for your loss
I’m sorry for what has happened to you
I’m sorry for you
3 Different Reasons You Might Say Sorry
- Saying “I’m sorry” to ask for clarification or to get someone’s attention
- Saying “I’m sorry” to apologize
- Saying “I’m sorry” to give your condolences
Saying “I’m sorry” to ask for clarification or to get someone’s attention
When you learn a new language in a new environment there will be moments where you can’t understand for the life of you what the other person is saying. The Bavarian goat herderer showing you the way to the next “Vesperstube” (a bar or cafe to get food or drinks especially on hiking trails) in the mountains might not be terribly pleased if you keep going “huh?”. Eventually you might just have to resort to nodding and smiling, Bavarians really do have a thick dialect. Here’s a couple of expressions in case you are brave enough to try and ask for clarification.
Wie bitte? translates literally to “how please?” means something like “excuse me?” or “I’m sorry” in German. It is only used for when you can’t hear or understand a person. It can also be an expression of shock and incredulity
Kannst du das bitte wiederholen?
“Could you repeat that please?” This handy expression contains the word “du”. You might remember from previous lessons that this informal pronoun is only used with people you are close with, such as family and friends. Especially new learners of German should be familiar with this phrase.
Können Sie das bitte wiederholen?
This expression is the formal version of “Kannst du das wiederholen”. You can use it with strangers, your boss or your neighbors. When in doubt, always use “Sie”, German speakers think it’s very impolite when you address them with “du” without having agreed to it beforehand.
This rather rude expression means “what?” and is on par with “huh?”. Definitely don’t use it with the aforementioned goat herder. It’s good to recognize “what?” though, some people might use it in an informal situation.
Saying “I’m sorry” to apologize
Let’s look now at how to apologize in German for what you did. Sometimes we just mess up. Imagine you did the laundry in your new German “Wohngemeinschaft” (shared apartment). You generously offer to do a load of laundry for the whole group and everybody throws in a couple of items. Unfortunately you forgot that your favorite red christmas-themed socks are also in there and discovered that you’ve turned everybody’s clothes a lovely shade of pink. What, other than moving out immediately, can you do now? Let’s look at some options with which you can apologize.
This is simply German for I’m sorry and probably the most common and widely used phrase. You can use it in a formal and informal setting, write it on a card or a cake, sign it, mime it and morse-code it and German speakers will understand you. Fun fact, the word “Entschuldigung” is related to the word “Schuld” which means guilt. You can also use “Entschuldigung” or it’s variations below to get someone’s attention, for example when you are in a tightly packed Berlin subway and need to get to the door.
Entschuldigen Sie bitte
In this variation of “Entschuldigung” you’ll discover the word “Sie” which indicates that this expression is used in a formal setting with strangers. You can use “Entschuldigen Sie bitte” both to apologize for something and to get someone’s attention.
Entschuldigen Sie vielmals
What could you have possibly done to be THIS sorry? “Entschuldigen Sie vielmals” could be translated to something like “I’m very very very sorry”. Try this when someone catches you cutting a line. Germans do not look kindly on line-cutters.
Es tut mir Leid
While “Es tut mir Leid” literally translated would be something like “this causes me pity” it means “I’m sorry”. Since it lacks formality it is best used with people you know well. You can also use it when someone asks you for something that you don’t know or have. “Wo ist der Bahnhof?” (where’s the train station?). “Das weiss ich nicht, es tut mir Leid” (I don’t know I’m sorry).
Ich bitte dich um Verzeihung
When you use “Ich bitte dich um Verzeihung” you bring out the big guns. Literally translated to “I ask for your forgiveness” you can use this expression when you really really did something wrong.
“Verzeihung” could be considered the little sister of “Ich bitte dich um Verzeihung”. It can be used to say “I’m sorry” but also to get someone’s attention. It is most often used among an older demographic, young people prefer the less formal “Entschuldigung ”, the most popular of the many forms of apologies in German.
Here’s a familiar one for you! A popular phenomenon in Germany is “Denglisch”, the use of a mix of German and English words. “Sorry” is one such word which is frequently heard. It’s very informal, don’t use it with a heartfelt and sincere apology, it will come off as flippant. Fun fact, the German language counts over 500 of those words derived from the English language, such as babysitter, lockdown, meeting, cheeseburger, laptop, coffee shop and many more.
Saying “I’m sorry” to give your condolences
Finding the right words for someone who is grieving is almost impossible. You will do best when you give your sincere condolences and leave it at that. Let’s look at some ways of expressing your compassion for someone who is going through a difficult situation.
“Mein Beileid” might translate most closely to “I’m sorry for your loss”. You can say it in person or write it on a card. The word “Beileid” is closely related to the word “Mitleid” which means pity or compassion.
Das tut mir Leid
You might recognize “Das tut mir Leid” from “Es tut mir Leid” which we looked at before. While the latter is used to say I’m sorry for what you have done, this new expression is used to say I’m sorry for what has happened to you. The “das” stands in for whatever has happened to the person, such as the loss of a family member.
Read next: 18 Ways To Say Good Morning in German
Das tut mir Leid für dich
Another slight variation of this is “Das tut mir Leid für dich” which means I’m sorry for you. “Dich” indicates a close relationship with the person, so this phrase is best used with friends and family. You can use it to offer your condolences but also when someone has lost a job, gotten a bad grade in school or is simply struggling more than usual. Saying “das tut mir Leid für dich” shows that you care about the person in question.
Accepting an apology
We have looked at a lot of situations where you did something wrong and offered your apologies. Now we want to look at those instances in which someone apologizes to you. If you want to continue having a good relationship with let’s say your co-worker Hannelore who accidentally broke your favorite mug it’s important to forgive and forget and accept their apology. Let’s look at a few expressions we can use in those cases.
Ich nehme deine Entschuldigung an
This phrase literally translates to “I accept your apology”. Can you figure out on your own whether it’s used in a formal or informal setting? The “dein” indicates an informal relationship with the speaker, so you can use “Ich nehme deine Entschuldigung an” with friends and family.
Ich nehme Ihre Entschuldigung an
“Ich nehme Ihre Entschuldigung an” is the formal brother of “Ich nehme deine Entschuldigung an”. You can say this to your co-worker Hannelore who broke your favorite mug by the way.
Say “In Ordnung” if you want to spice things up in a passive aggressive way. It means “it’s alright” but is it really? It will keep the other person up at night wondering whether you are still mad at them. Now that I think about it, you shouldn’t say this to Hannelore.
Das macht nichts.
This funny expression literally translates to “that doesn’t do anything” but might be more accurately translated to “don’t worry about it”. It’s for those situations in which whatever happened wasn’t such a big deal in the first place.
Because you have bared with me throughout this whole post, here’s a fun one at the end. “Schwamm drüber” which means something like “let’s forgive and forget it” can be literally translated to “put a sponge over it”. I have no idea where this expression comes from maybe someone spilled coffee and someone else put a sponge over it…? I’ll have to get back to you about that one.
Bonus: How to say I’m sorry in Austria and Switzerland
In previous posts we have seen how different certain words can be in Austria and Switzerland. Although German is also spoken in those two countries the language varies according to the region you are in. “I’m sorry” is no exception. While most people will understand “Entschuldigung” it’s worth having a look at some more particular expressions from Austria and Switzerland.
This funny little word which means “I’m sorry” is used in Austria when you bump into someone. Don’t use it in Germany though, Germans don’t know it.
Legend has it that someone brings you a wheel of cheese and gifts you Swiss nationality when you master the pronunciation of this word. “Äxgüsi” is used in Switzerland in a similar way that “Öha” is used in Austria. Listen carefully, do you notice something when you say “Äxgüsi” out loud? It actually sounds very similar to the English “excuse me”! No? It might just be me then.
We are so glad that you stayed with us throughout this whole post. You are armed now with a lot of new expressions on how to say sorry in German, express your condolences or accept someone’s apology. We know that recognizing your faults and mistakes isn’t always easy but we also believe that apologizing is a great step to bring people closer together. You can pick out and write down your favorite expressions from this article and try them out with your fellow German learners or with your new German friends!