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What is the difference in meaning between "pardon me" and "I beg your pardon"?

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    Research? Theories? Points of confusion?
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 9, 2013 at 20:30

3 Answers 3

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The range of possible meanings that a speaker may intend to convey with either "Pardon me" or "I beg your pardon" in different situations is considerably larger than any fundamental difference in meaning between the two phrases.

The biggest formal difference between "Pardon me" and "I beg your pardon" is that "I beg your pardon" explicitly (though not always seriously) frames the statement as a supplication. That feature makes it especially suitable for instances in which a genuine error calls for a genuine apology. In contrast, "Pardon me," on the face of it, is not a request but an instruction. Nevertheless, it is often used as earnestly as "I beg your pardon" or "[Please] excuse me" to acknowledge that one owes the person addressed an acknowledgment of having erred in some (usually minor) way. Viewed in that light, "Pardon me" may serve as an abbreviated form of a less peremptory statement, along the lines of "I hope that you will pardon me."

I don't know the frequency of usage of "Pardon me" versus "I beg your pardon" versus "Excuse me" in the United States or in the UK, but my impression is that in California (where I live) "Excuse me" is far more common than either of the other two, and that "Pardon me" is much more common than "I beg your pardon."

One reason for the popularity of "Excuse me" is that it may serve at times as an expression of disbelief, where the speaker frames it as an emphatic rhetorical question: "Excuse me? You let the python out of his terrarium 'to eat'?" As other commenters have noted, "Excuse me" may also be used sarcastically, aggressively, or otherwise insincerely. In the subway, for example, it is not unusual for someone moving from car to car to nudge you in passing, followed by the curt comment "Excuse me," where the meaning of the phrase clearly does not extend beyond, "Yeah, I bumped into you."

In most instances, though, "Excuse me," "Pardon me," and "I beg your pardon" have either a genuinely deferential element, as when used to preface an interruption of someone who isn't paying attention to the speaker (functioning much as "Con permiso" does in Spanish), or a genuinely apologetic element, as when used to express regret for a faux pas (functioning much as "Perdon" does in Spanish).

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I beg your pardon :

Used to show that you strongly disagree or that you are angry about something that someone has said: I beg your pardon, young man - I don't want to hear you speak like that again!

Pardon me : Used to say that you are sorry for doing something wrong or for being rude.

In all cases, I beg your pardon is more formal than pardon me.

examples:

  1. Please repeat what you just said Pardon me - what did you say your name was?

  2. Pardon me, does this train go to Oakland?

  3. I am sorry for what I just did Oh, I beg your pardon! I didn't see your foot there!

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Pardon me is normally used to alert a person or as a form of admission that you have done something impolite or wrong.

Usage: After I fart at a high society dinner I might say, "Pardon me."

Beg your pardon is normally used when someone else has done something wrong and you are either trying to get their attention or you are alerting them that they may have done something impolite or wrong.

Usage: At the same dinner after someone asks me to pass the mustard I would say, "Beg your pardon, this is not mustard, this is Grey Poupon."

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