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Dear native speakers of British / American English,

I often find myself in the situation when I have to say one of these but then get confused about the choice of word. Is there any difference in meaning or formality between:

  • It's a shame you won't be able to join us.
  • It's a pity you won't be able to join us.
  • It's unfortunate you won't be able to join us.
  • It's too bad you won't be able to join us.

The reason why I ask this is because in my native language we tend to avoid words like "shame", "pity", and "unfortunate" in a sentence that should sound sympathetic. I have read related threads but am not very clear with the suggestions.

Thank you.

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  • my native language we tend to avoid incorporating negative words like "shame", "pity", and "unfortunate into a sentence that should sound sympathetic That's not fair. Every culture tries its best to do the same, not just yours. – Blessed Geek Jul 27 '15 at 9:01
  • @BlessedGeek I'm sorry if I sounded like saying my native language / culture was the best. But I really didn't mean that. I was just trying to explain my source of confusion. I love English and hope to speak the language better. Thanks for your feedback. Now I've learned to be more careful with my choice of words :) – stelle Jul 27 '15 at 9:54
  • The post has been put on hold because it is deemed opinion based, that is to say there is no "right" or "wrong" answer for this question. So your recent edit has not invalidated the close-vote. If you wish to reopen the question, ask about differences in "meaning", "usage"; and formality. – Mari-Lou A Jul 29 '15 at 15:55
  • Thank you @Mari-LouA for your feedback. I did ask about the difference. But I just edited it again as per your advice. Hopefully I get it right this time. Channel Islander's answer has satisfied me though. So it is alright if this question is not reopened. I just hope I won't be blocked from asking more questions to the forum. Thank you once again. – stelle Jul 29 '15 at 16:30
  • Don't worry. You can ask a new question any time, you're not banned at all! For help on how and what type of questions you can ask, see here: english.stackexchange.com/help/on-topic and english.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-ask – Mari-Lou A Jul 29 '15 at 18:59
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There is no difference in meaning between your examples, to which you could add:

I'm sorry you won't be able to join us.

The difference between each of them is in degree, and as you correctly guessed, you would choose from among them based on whether you wanted to minimize or enhance the person's sense of guilt at missing the meeting.

Largely a matter of taste I suppose but I would rank them from least to most negative sounding (in the US) as follows:

  1. I'm sorry you can't join us. (Places focus back on me)
  2. It's too bad you can't join us. (Just one of those unavoidable things)
  3. It's a shame you can't join us. (A shame affects both of us equally)
  4. It's unfortunate you can't join us. (Could be neutral but could be cold, official)
  5. It's a pity you can't join us. (I mean really, couldn't you have tried harder?)

Since these are all so similar, I would pay attention to the wording of the rest of the sentence/message to make sure I conveyed the desired tone.

Also, #2 is pretty informal, and #3 and #5 convey a personal regret and would not be used in a business environment in the US as much as the others. Whilst in the UK, a pity is much more common in all scenarios.

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Channel Islander gives an excellent answer that identifies shades of meaning. I can only add 6. I'm disappointed you can't join us. (You could have made a bit more effort)

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@Channel Islander has explained well. In fact I would say that the choice of words depends on the context and relationship between two interacting people (official, personal or just an acquaintance) and also the context of the event which prompted you to write this sentence in the first place. For example "It's a shame you can't join us." One would use this only if there was an expectation from the other person to join due to some noble cause or an obligation (he can not and should not avoid) and the person could not join inspite of that then it could be termed as shameful.

I would like to add one more option. "It's a sad you can't join us.". Again depends on the relationship and context.

As far as the answer from @Blessed Geek" about cultures was a little too harsh in judgement. Obviously @Stelle is not a native user of English and it does not appear he is trying to flaunt his culture in anyway. This prompted another judgement from the admin. This whole thing means people have become too edgy in judging others when it comes to cultural issues.

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In English the words shame and pity have definitions which relate specifically to expressions like "It's a shame (or a pity) you can't join us". There is no need to avoid these words in that context because everyone understands that the serious negative definitions do not apply in that context.

The definitions from the Oxford Lexico site are

Shame (definition 2) A regrettable or unfortunate situation or action. With examples

‘what a shame Ellie won't be here’ and ‘it is a shame that they are not better known’

and

Pity (again definition 2) A cause for regret or disappointment, with examples

‘it's a pity you didn't contact us first’ and ‘what a pity we can't be friends’

These definitions apply specifically to singular nouns with the indefinite article "a", this usually distinguishes this usage from the mass nouns (without the definite article) which carry the negative connotations you mention and the comparatively rare use of 'a shame' in a different context for which Lexico gives the example

ignorance of Latin would be a disgrace and a shame to any public man

From your question it seems to me that, perhaps, your language does not have these secondary definitions.

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