In this programme from BBC sorry is used in addition to excuse me to get one's attention:

Sorry, have you got the time (please)?

So I am wondering:

1) Is sorry common for a native speaker to get people's attention (e.g. Sorry, may I have a word with you?)?

2) Can sorry be considered as an abbreviated form for Sorry to bother you (and suchlike)?

Thank you

  • 2
    I think it's General Reference that anything BBC Learning English tells you will almost certainly be correct. In this case, it says “Sorry” ... is usually an apology, but it can also be used as a polite way to interrupt someone to ask them a question. The "interruption" may of course be something as trivial as "interrupt your daydreaming while you appear to be doing nothing", but more often it means interrupt your talking. Oct 26, 2012 at 12:32
  • I wonder what is the etymology of this usage - whether it isn't brought in by immigrants learning English. In Polish, for example, there are no distinct words for "I'm sorry" and "Excuse me", and the mistake to use "I'm sorry" in place of "Excuse me" is rampart amongst the learners.
    – SF.
    Oct 26, 2012 at 12:37
  • I thought this was going to be about the redundant (and ugly) got in that sentence. Disappointed.
    – itsbruce
    Oct 26, 2012 at 21:48

3 Answers 3


It's not common for me to say "Sorry, have you got the time", no.

It's short for "I'm sorry to disturb you, but can you tell me what time it is?", yes.

I think that "Excuse me, but can you tell me what time it is?" is better than both of the options offered by the BBC programme.

However, I speak American English. Perhaps the BBC's suggestions are more appropriate in the UK. I don't know. When in the UK, do as the UKians do.

  • Thank you for your contribution on the AE usage, but yes, I was referring to the British usage.
    – Odalie
    Oct 26, 2012 at 12:26
  • It's not common for me to start with "Sorry..." either, but I might be more inclined to do that if I was interrupting (in other words, it'd be short for "Sorry to interrupt, but...")
    – J.R.
    Oct 26, 2012 at 13:45
  • @J.R.: Agreed. Only if I were interrupting someone who was working, talking, sleeping, or eating would I say "sorry". Otherwise, it's just "Excuse me".
    – user21497
    Oct 26, 2012 at 14:45
  • Excuse me. Do you have the correct time?
    – Pete
    Nov 1, 2012 at 8:40

British English, various regional dialects notwithstanding, encourages politeness and courtesy. A friend of mine from Scandinavia, living in the UK for over 15 years, whose language contains no direct way of saying please or thank you and who certainly would never use sorry to gain someone's attention for some reason, still has problems getting to grips with the myriad ways in which British English speakers use ten words where one will do.

In a strictly literal sense the extra words are redundant, but for a native speaker these are a requirement to show respect to the person you are addressing. Sorry in the sense you are asking about is one of these extra words. In this it is used as an apology, the first recorded use of sorry in this way was, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, in 1834; while Sargent's New Monthly Magazine of March, 1843 contains the phrase "sorry I'm in such haste" [Oxford English Dictionary Online].

Much of the advice I have come across while looking into this appears to come from people who come close to giving their personal preferences as rules of use, with little reference to how native speakers actually use sorry in situations. On the forum.wordreference.com site one responder to exactly the same issue goes so far to as to say their advice "was consciously trying to steer a learner away from something I think wrong".

In actual usage, native speakers will use sorry as more or less interchangeable with excuse me and there is nothing wrong in this. Again, in a strictly literal sense, it is an apology for bothering someone. However, in certain circumstances (e.g. asking someone to get out of you way) it is an automatic, unconsidered request and has really lost any connotation of an apology.

The situations where you would use sorry are, though not invariably so, more informal than when using excuse me. You might say sorry to get past someone when shopping; excuse me to get past your boss at work. Other examples could be excuse me to gain attention at a lecture or work meeting; sorry for the same purpose with a group of friends down the pub (excuse me can be used in this situation to humorous effect, for example if someone says something you believe to be wrong). It is more likely that sorry, [where are the eggs?] will be used in a supermarket; while *excuse me, [do you have a first edition of 'Alice in Wonderland'?] would be used in a specialist book shop.

The British, amongst other faults we consider to be virtues, are adept at making judgements based on how a person appears (which is why, digressing shortly, someone begging at a railway station can make £100's a day when dressed in a suit, with a briefcase, claiming to have had his wallet stolen, while making nothing when dressed casually). When stopping someone in the street to ask directions we judge, often without thinking, whether they rate sorry (probably casually dressed and around our own age), excuse me (likely to be dressed more formally but still probably around our own age), or even excuse me, please (likely to be dressed more formally, or in a casual suit, and older than ourselves).

To make matters more complicated, as if that was necessary, in some contexts the addition of please after excuse me is more or less de riguer. Especially this is the case when trying to get past someone (so excuse me, please).

Further, excuse me can be made more informal by using the colloquial 'scuse me, (please) or 'scuse, (please). The Urban Dictionary describes this variant as the "ill-tempered short-mannered way of saying, "excuse me”" and as "more rude and assertive" than excuse me. As a native British English speaker I disagree with this, for practical purposes it can be thought of as more or less interchangeable with sorry.

This may give some idea of the vagaries of English, and the mantraps strewn about in seemingly casual exchanges. It is, however, true to say that some, at least, of the above is becoming less important due to the globalisation of cultures. It is also true to say that my friends describe me as old-fashioned so much of this may be out of date when we get to the 20th century :-).

  • Your answer deserves all my admiration and gratitude, mister_pluto.
    – Odalie
    Nov 2, 2012 at 13:52
  • (II part @mister_pluto) In a scale of formality, there woud be (from higher to lower): EXCUSE ME, PLEASE - EXCUSE ME - 'SCUSE ME, PLEASE - 'SCUSE ME - 'SCUSE - SORRY. Anyway it's strange that this use of Sorry is not quoted by any of the most known learner's dictionary except the Macmillian one. To complete the picture, Swan (Practical English usage) writes that you (native speakers) don't use the forms EXCUSE ME, SIR/MADAM. So my question is: don't you happen to say EXCUSE ME/SORRY, SIR/MADAM when asking a question to a stranger?
    – Odalie
    Nov 2, 2012 at 14:11
  • Thank you, Odalie. You are, of course, very welcome. The idea of a scale of formality is, sadly for people who want there to be rules to these things, is inaccurate. Rather it is that these different and variant phrases provide different emphases to what you are saying, some of which I have tried to give in my answer. Nov 3, 2012 at 8:54

The comment by FumbleFingers is correct. People use sorry in this context as a way of interrupting somebody when they need or want something, and here in the UK it is relatively common. As Bill Franke says though, 'Excuse me' is used more. As far as SF's comment goes, I don't think it has been brought into the language by immigrants learning the language.

  • 1
    This is good for a comment, but not for an answer.
    – Mitch
    Nov 1, 2012 at 17:15

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