I've heard people saying "Excuse me" after sneezing in public, but should it be "[I am] sorry" instead?

An answer to Difference between “Excuse me” and “Sorry” says that:

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

So, if you want somebody's pen, you will ask like:

Excuse me, can I borrow your pen?

And, if you found a pen but you didn't find its owner and, due to your emergency, you used it and later explained it to its owner like:

Sorry, I had to use your pen in your absence. It was an emergency, sorry again.

So, following the above concept, saying Excuse me after sneezing will be like doing something first and asking permission for it later. What is wrong with saying Sorry here instead?

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    Nothing wrong with saying sorry after sneezing—that’s perfectly common too. I would understand ‘excuse me’ here as less of a formulaic platitude and more of a literal request: “Please excuse/pardon/forgive me for making this weird sneezy noise and annoying you all”. Feb 9, 2018 at 12:36
  • 'pardon/forgive me' suits, but I never found 'excuse me' as a fit. Excuse me is used as a request in the future right? Feb 9, 2018 at 12:45
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    No, not necessarily. It can be for things in the past and present as well. Feb 9, 2018 at 12:52
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    An answer that has a lot of upvotes, such as the one you quote, does not necessarily contain correct information. That’s a major drawback of Stack Exchange. Notice the one comment to the answer that says it (the answer) is wrong. Feb 9, 2018 at 16:13
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    I wonder why you don't mention the accepted answer to the linked question, which talks about sneezing: "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."
    – herisson
    Feb 9, 2018 at 18:52

4 Answers 4


See this definition from Webster.com

5 —used as a polite apology for a minor fault or offense, such as laughing, coughing, or burping
6 US —used as a polite apology for getting in someone's way or bumping into someone Oh, excuse me. I didn't notice you standing there.

I think the answer you quoted in the other question is not really correct. "Excuse me" is not generally used to ask for permission. The example you give is of one of the following definitions:

1 —used as a polite way of starting to say something Excuse me, but do you mind if I shut the window?
2 —used as a polite way of starting to interrupt someone Excuse me, but may I say something?

They're basically introducing the request by apologizing for the interruption.

  • so @Barmar in a way sorry and excuse me is used for saying an apology? Feb 12, 2018 at 8:44
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    Yes, but "Excuse me" tends to be used for more minor offenses, you wouldn't use it when apologizing for injuring someone, offending them, or damaging their property. It's usually just blurted out at the moment of the action.
    – Barmar
    Feb 12, 2018 at 16:25

You can say sorry for sneezing but you usually don't, because there is nothing morally wrong with sneezing. There's no real need to apologize.

You should say "excuse me." Asking "permission" (even after the fact) is a polite thing to do. It's similar to asking for the right to e.g. leave the room to go to the bathroom. It's a natural, even necessary act. But "excuse me" acknowledges that you are inconveniencing others by doing something that has to be done.

And if people say "bless you" or something similar, you say "thank you," to acknowledge their concern.


You would not say "sorry" because you are not apologizing for sneezing. Instead, most people say "excuse me" because they are excusing themselves from making an interruption. They are excusing themselves because the other people are not saying "excuse you". Also, when one says "excuse me", it is not asked as a question. They are not asking others to excuse them. They are excusing themselves for making an unpleasant interruption.

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    They are excusing themselves, or asking others to excuse them??? Feb 9, 2018 at 23:28
  • As I said above, they are not asking others to excuse them. They are excusing themselves from making an unpleasant interruption. Feb 13, 2018 at 23:50

I've heard people saying "Excuse me" after sneezing in public, but should it be " [I am] sorry" instead?

Excuse me is a mild imperative that asks the victim for forgiveness.

Sorry is an adjective complement that expresses the regret of the subject (for the action) to the victim.

Either or both are appropriate in cases of minor transgressions.

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