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What is the difference between "Excuse me, ..." and "Sorry, ..."? When do we use one or the other?

For example, when you haven't heard the speaker, or stepped on someone's foot or accidentally spilled some sauce.

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Do you have example situations you would use them in? –  Matt Эллен Nov 11 '11 at 22:14
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Haven't heard speaker. Stepped on the leg. Accidentally poured sauce. –  anatoliiG Nov 11 '11 at 22:25

3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Sorry expresses more regret than excuse me does.

If I'm trying to leave the room and you're in my way, I'll say "Excuse me." I recognize that I'm inconveniencing you by asking you to move, but the inconvenience is very small, and I don't expect you to be offended by the request. People often say "excuse me" when they commit small violations of etiquette, such as sneezing loudly.

If I accidentally step on your toe while I'm trying to get to the door, I'll say "I'm sorry!" I didn't mean to step on your toe, and I regret injuring you.

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"Excuse me" is asking for permission. "Sorry" is asking for forgiveness.

You say "excuse me" before doing something that might inconvenience someone.
You say "sorry" after having inconvenienced someone.

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You've never said "excuse me" after jostling someone on the subway? –  Marthaª Nov 11 '11 at 22:52
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@Marthaª: I have. But my preference in this context is "sorry." –  Tom Au Nov 11 '11 at 22:53
    
Normally one says "excuse me" when attempting to get past someone on the subway, and "sorry" when bumping into them after failing to get past smoothly. –  Karl Knechtel Nov 11 '11 at 23:50
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This is reductive and wrong. Another example: "Sorry, could you repeat that?" And what is the need for caps? –  z7sg Ѫ Nov 12 '11 at 3:12
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People misuse words all the time but the sense of this answer is correct. Excuse me usually precedes the offensive action and sorry often follows it. –  robrambusch Nov 13 '11 at 1:37

Investigating the speech of the English upper class in 1956, the linguist Professor Ross identified U(pper) and Non-U(pper) features. ‘Pardon’ was a non-U term used

  1. When the hearer didn’t hear the speaker properly;

  2. As an apology (e.g. on brushing by someone in a passage); and

  3. After hiccuping or belching.

The U equivalents were (1) What? (2) Sorry (3) (Silence).

These days, I suspect AmEng uses Excuse me more often for (1) and (2) than does BrEng, which prefers Sorry. BrEng mainly uses Excuse me for (3) and perhaps AmEng does too.

If you bump into someone on a British street, the bumped is just as likely as the bumper to say Sorry.

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The amazing thing is the way in which the upper class folk sound less refined than the people who are trying to pretend to be them. I mean, really, not excusing yourself at all for a belch? –  Karl Knechtel Nov 12 '11 at 15:39
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@KarlKnechtel Knechtel: U terms are certainly more direct, and to that extent I applaud them. The explanation is that the upper class are secure and have no need to prove anything. In contrast, the aspirational middle class say the things they THINK are correct in order to impress. As for the silence after belching, I suppose the rationale might be that to say anything at all only draws attention to it. –  Barrie England Nov 12 '11 at 17:54

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