Sign up ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

As an ESL speaker, I'm puzzled by these two phrases... Is "what a pity" used as often as "what a shame" in an English-speaking country? Is there any difference between them in meaning or usage?

share|improve this question
It seems they are converging:… – mplungjan Aug 12 '13 at 9:43
It frequency only but not necessarily in meaning. For example, boy and girl trend closely but are opposite. In this example, it's curious to see that girl started trending more frequent than boy in about 1970. – Martin Krzywinski Jan 19 at 23:13

1 Answer 1

For the most part, they are the same, but there are some slight differences.

What a pity expresses sorrow. It is harsher than saying "I feel sorry for you," but it still shows sympathy. If a boy gets in a fight at school, his father might say "What a pity" to mean that he wishes the boy had not gotten in the fight in the first place, but he is still sorry for his son.

pity: a feeling of sorrow and sympathy caused by the suffering of others: what a pity we can't be with friends. (Oxford Dictionary)

What a shame is a little colder. People use it to express a loss of respect for whatever they are talking about. For instance, if the boy is the one who started the fight, his father might say "What a shame." This means he has lost some respect for his son.

shame: loss of respect; dishonour: the incident had brought shame on his family. (Oxford Dictionary)

Nowadays, I hear "what a shame" more often because it only has three syllables instead of four. Instead of "what a pity," I usually hear "that's too bad" or something similar.

share|improve this answer
Thanks so much! So in the degree of sounding harsh, it's "what a shame" > "what a pity" or "that's too bad"> "I feel sorry for you"? – Jessie Aug 14 '13 at 12:37
Other than the definitions, the rest of your answer seems very opinion-based and does not reconcile with how I hear and use the two expressions. Can you provide a citation or example for your statement "what a shame" is used more because it has one less syllable? – Kristina Lopez Feb 11 '14 at 19:10

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.