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What is the difference in nuance between the following statements? Which would be more appropriate for a letter of condolence?

  1. I was sorry to hear that your mother has passed away.
  2. I am sorry to hear that your mother has passed away.
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You might use 1 if you are responding long after the fact, to indicate that you only just heard. Otherwise, I've always been puzzled by the fact that it is hearing of a death rather than the death itself which is supposed to occasion sorrow. I'd write "Dear Jane, I'm so sorry for your loss. Your mother was &c". –  StoneyB Nov 11 '12 at 17:45
    
@StoneyB From what I've googled, 1 definitely appears to be the norm seemingly irrespective of time lapse. But if you only just heard, wouldn't 2 be more appropriate? There's also the element of "Am I still not sorry about it?" as alluded to in @ WillHunting's answer. –  coleopterist Nov 11 '12 at 17:51
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Sorry ... Substitute "In any case" for "Otherwise": I meant that "I'm sorry for your loss" is superior to both 1 & 2. The first thought should be for your correspondent, not excusing your tardiness. –  StoneyB Nov 11 '12 at 17:55
    
@StoneyB: Saying "I'm sorry for your loss" wouldn't always be ideal, since it carries the implication that you either never knew the mother, or that you're only sorry because you know the death will be hard for your friend. I'd tend to go for OP's version if there was the slightest possibility it could be taken to imply that I too knew the mother well enough to mourn her passing. I think worrying about exactly what to hear implies is an analysis too far. –  FumbleFingers Nov 11 '12 at 18:02
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1 Answer

Both are correct, but I would use am to suggest you still feel that way in the present as this is a matter of great importance.

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It partly depends on how long ago the mother died, when you heard about it, and how much later you're writing the letter. If the death itself, and/or your hearing of it, happened years ago, you'd almost certainly write "I was sorry". –  FumbleFingers Nov 11 '12 at 17:47
    
@FumbleFingers ... and if the death occurred a couple of weeks ago and you heard about it just now? –  coleopterist Nov 11 '12 at 17:52
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