I was amused with the line, “Stand-alone 'sorry' may have dressed like a gentleman, but his heart was made of India rubber” in the article titled “A poor apology for a word” in December 13 New York Times.

It says “the average British person says 'sorry' eight times a day — or “204,536 times in three score years and ten,” in the reporter’s Old Testament idiom.”

Is “sorry” predominantly used in both the UK and the US when you are apologizing for something, or asking somebody to repeat something that you have not hard clearly (OALD) in comparison with “pardon,” and “excuse me”?

Are there any significant difference of meaning and nuance among “sorry,” “pardon” and “excuse me,” or they are perfectly interchangeable?

2 Answers 2


This is complicated. I will describe American English:

Situations where "excuse me" is better than "sorry":

  • you are walking through a crowd and need to move. "Sorry" implies that you don't have a right to walk through the crowd and that you are "guilty" of something. "Excuse me" is better. You might say "sorry," if, for instance, you have to push through a crowd in an unexpected way, because you have made a mistake (like, if you are walking "upstream" while others are boarding an airplane.)
  • your body inadvertently makes a noise. (you will have to consult an etiquette book for which noises require "excuse me," but from the standpoint of language usage, none of the noises require "sorry," and indeed if you say "sorry" it will sound like you are guilty of something, which in turn seems a little crude.)

Situations where "sorry" is better than "excuse me":

  • You have done something wrong, which you regret doing. "Excuse me for getting angry" implies to some extent that you don't regret getting angry very strongly.

Situations where they are interchangeable:

  • You don't understand someone, and you want them to repeat what they said.

In general "pardon" and "pardon me" mean the same thing as "excuse me" but are more formal.

Both "excuse me" and "pardon me" can be said in anger, for instance, if someone is standing in your way (see bullet point one under excuse me) and you feel they are being quite inconsiderate and should have realized that they were in the way, you might say "excuse me!" in your angriest voice. But it's much rarer to say "sorry" in anger (except sarcastically, when you are not in fact sorry).

  • Yes, "pardon" in British English is probably used more often than not in at least an interrogative and quite often a hostile or combative sense. I would avoid it as a synonym of "sorry", although it can function as a synonym of "excuse me" for bodily noises etc. "Pardon me" is less combative. May 25, 2015 at 17:41
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    I'm in (and from) the UK and people say "sorry" all the time when they actually mean "Excuse me". In fact, they say sorry when there is any sort of minor conflict/collision/blocked desire, even when it's 100% not their fault. For example, in our old office we shared a kitchen with another company, who we didn't know very well. If i was in the kitchen (which was small) and one of them walked round the corner, they'd stop (on realising someone was there already) and say "Sorry". This sort of thing bothers me because I'm then wondering if I'm required to reassure them or something. Mar 15, 2016 at 16:56
  • It would be like if you came home and there was a tramp sitting on your doorstep; if you were British, you'd wait for a moment, then say "err, sorry, can i just ..." then tail off and hope they'd take that as a cue to let you reach your door. Mar 15, 2016 at 16:58

Now let's look at the situation, excuse me is simply I am passing by and don't pay me any attention. If I pass wind and rather and I am uncultured I will try and make light of it and use Excuuuuuuuuse me, followed by a embarrassed chuckle.

Sorry is used to express an understanding, that my action (passing wind) has effected others in a less than desirable way and remorse is shown, followed by "Pardon me" which is the equivalent to "Forgive me" or "Forgive my indiscretion". Coming from a pardon of ones crimes.

A loud "I beg your pardon", or "Pardon me, Sir, Madam" is one has taken offense to the situation, comment or action and is directed at the accused as a please explain yourself/ actions or redeem your credibility. I hope this adds some clarity.


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