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Saying Sorry in German: How You Can Make Everything Right

Did you do it? Well, you’d better fess up.

Or make amends, apologize, beg forgiveness, admit guilt, cop a plea…say sorry.

We’ve got a lot of ways to talk about doing this in English, just like we do for lots of everyday concepts. And yes, apologizing is an everyday concept, even if you’re a good person.

For that reason, it’s important that you learn how to say “sorry” in German. Imagine yourself making several different mistakes, then consult this guide to see exactly how you should atone for each one.

We’ll also break down the language for you so you can understand what you’re saying. All the better for a sincere apology.

Now, the big question:

What have you done?
Was hast du gemacht?

  1. Level 1: You Made a Careless Mistake but it was Okay
  2. Level 2: You Made a Careless Mistake and it was Really Bad
  3. Level 3: You Hurt Someone but They’ll Get Over It
  4. Level 4: You Knowingly Hurt Someone and it was Really Bad
  5. Bonus: Sorry When You Don’t Mean Sorry
  6. Conclusion

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1. Level 1: You Made a Careless Mistake but it was Okay

Spilled Ice Cream

1- You’re Sitting in Someone’s Seat (Du sitzt in dem Platz von jemandem anderen)

Germany is famous for its public transportation and the quality of its trains.

Even in such a well-run system, it’s still possible for mistakes to be made about tickets.

Somebody may approach you and say:

- Entschuldigung, aber das ist mein Platz.
- Sorry, but that’s my seat.

To which you can simply reply:

- Entschuldigung!
- Excuse me!

This first word is interesting. Let’s look at it, because you’ll hear and use it a lot.

It translates pretty well to “excuse me” in English, but why is it so long? We can break it up into ent-schuld-ig-ung with the root, schuld, meaning “guilt” or “fault.” Each of the other parts changes the meaning slightly.

The ent- prefix adds the sense of “removal” to whatever comes after. -ig turns a noun into an adjective, so schuldig means guilty or at fault. And -ung turns it into a noun—think “guilt.”

Therefore, if we really dissect it, the word for “excuse me” in German is kind of like saying “removal of guilt.” Pretty neat! The more German you learn, the more you’ll be able to easily parse long words like this.

So if you’re wondering how to say “sorry to bother you” in German or want to know German for “sorry for the inconvenience,” this is a good option.

And yes, you can use Entschuldigung both to get someone’s attention and to offer an apology. I suppose London isn’t that far from Germany after all. Let’s move on.

2- You Stepped on Someone’s Foot (Du bist jemandem auf den Fuss getreten)

We’ve all done it. Whether at a crowded bar or in a crowded train, accidents like this happen.

This is another great place to bust out the Entschuldigung. Plenty of English speakers would do the same thing—“Oh, excuse me!”

Lots of people also say “oops” for the same situation. In Germany, they make the same sound, but it’s spelled Ups!

- Ups! Entschuldigung!
- Oops! Sorry!

You don’t need to make a big deal out of little mishaps like that.

You’ll probably hear a quick and friendly Kein Ding, meaning “it’s nothing” or “no problem.”

But what if the mishap was slightly larger?


2. Level 2: You Made a Careless Mistake and it was Really Bad

Woman Facepalming

1- You Knocked a Hot Drink All Over Somebody (Du hast ein heisses Getränk auf jemanden geschüttet)

Autsch! Well, you didn’t mean it. And they probably needed to wash that shirt anyway. Still, you can’t brush something like that off with an Entschuldigung alone. Instead:

- Ach nein! Entschuldigung! Tut mir Leid!
- Oh no! Sorry! So sorry!

Tut mir Leid is another extremely common phrase that you’ll see a few times in this article. It’s a shortened form of es tut mir Leid, which literally means “it does me sorrow.” That sounds pretty hefty in translation, but of course it doesn’t carry that strong of a connotation in German.

You’ll probably want to do something to help rectify the situation, like saying:

- Ich hole Ihnen eine Serviette.
- “I’ll get you (some) napkins.”

Or better, if you’re able to:

- Ich kaufe Ihnen … [einen neuen Kaffee, ein neues Bier].
- I’ll buy you [a new coffee, a new beer].

Here we’re using the formal Sie (seen here in its grammatical form Ihnen) because this situation is much more likely to happen to people that you don’t know. And when you’ve just ruined someone’s morning, you’ll want to be as polite as possible.

If you’re not in range of a coffee shop/biergarten, this step isn’t necessary. Something that you might need to replace, though, is…

2- You Dropped Someone’s Phone and the Screen Cracked (Du hast das Handy von jemandem fallen lassen und der Bildschirm ist zerbrochen)

3 Ways to Say Sorry

Yeah, you’re gonna need to offer some assistance here. First, start off with:

- Es tut mir wirklich Leid!
- I’m really so sorry!

Then try to do what you can to fix the situation.

- Ich kenne jemanden, der das in Ordnung bringen kann.
- “I know someone who can fix it.”

If you’re borrowing someone’s phone it’s probably a friend’s, so you can suggest:

- Es war meine Schuld. Ich werde es zur Reperatur bringen.
- It was my fault. I’ll get it repaired.

There’s that word Schuld again from Entschuldigung. While Entschuldigung (despite its length) is a light and common word, to use the root Schuld is more serious and comes out when there’s someone to blame for something.

3- You Made a Business Mistake and Cost Your Company Clients (Du hast einen Fehler bei der Arbeit gemacht und deine Firma um Kunden gebracht)

Say Sorry

Here’s a chance to make amends using much more formal language than in the other examples. Depending on your business, this might be something that can be easily forgiven or it might merit some kind of punishment.

Better to err on the safe side when you fess up.

- Ich hoffe, dass Sie meine aufrichtige Entschuldigung akzeptieren.
- I hope you accept my sincere apologies.

Here we’ve again used the formal Sie and used a great set phrase, aufrichtige Entschuldigung. Now to convince your boss not to give you the boot immediately:

- Ich verspreche, dass ich in Zukunft vorsichtiger sein werde.
- I promise to be more careful in the future.

Vorsicht is another word we can take apart quite cleanly. Sicht means “sight,” and vor is a preposition meaning “before.” So before-sight literally means “caution” or “attention,” and sure enough the word Vorsicht! is often printed in big letters on danger signs all over Europe.


3. Level 3: You Hurt Someone but They’ll Get Over It

Man Asking Woman for Forgiveness

1- You Ate the Last of Your Roommate’s Food (Du hast das letzte Essen deines Mitbewohners gegessen)

Oh gosh. That can actually be pretty rude in Germany, where people are more used to their privacy and personal space.

The best thing to do is to apologize sincerely.

- Es tut mir Leid. Ich hätte das nicht tun sollen.
- I’m very sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.

This is a great example of how the German language can stack up verbs at the end of the sentence. This article isn’t going to go into depth about German verbs and how they work, but I’ll tell you that this is the memory anchor I use to talk about this tense.

Anytime I want to express “shouldn’t have […],” I think about the phrase “I shouldn’t have done it,” and remember how the verbs are ordered. This is faster than applying a list of rules!

In any case, your roommate has probably lost some trust in you. That’s only natural—those cookies were homemade! So you should try to convince them that you’ll change. Here are two great sentences for that:

- Ich werde das nie wieder tun.
- I’ll never do it again.

- Wie wäre es, wenn ich dir ein Abendessen koche?
- How about I cook you dinner?

This is another perfect phrase you can fit into a lot of situations. “How about if…” / wie wäre es, wenn

How about if you were on the other side of that situation—and you overreacted?

2- You Got Angry and Shouted at a Friend (Du bist wütend auf einen Freund geworden und hast ihn/sie angeschriehen)

This is a perfect situation to use that “I shouldn’t have done it” phrase. In addition, you might also try explaining why you were so hurt.

- Ich war schlecht gelaunt, also…
- I was in a bad mood, so…

- Ich war wütend auf dich, weil…
- I was angry at you because…

But just explaining why you lost your temper doesn’t always go far enough. You’ll also have to apologize sincerely (try once more with es tut mir Leid).

Depending on the relationship you have with your friend, it may be appropriate to promise that you won’t do it again. Displays of anger really don’t tend to fit in with German culture, and they may have a bigger effect on your friends than you realize.


4. Level 4: You Knowingly Hurt Someone and it was Really Bad

Woman Sitting Alone

Oh, dear reader, why do you do these things?

1- Somebody Lost their Job Because of You (Wegen dir hat jemand seinen Job verloren)

This would probably be a situation where a lengthy letter of apology is more appropriate than a couple of phrases. And you might want to wait a little bit to give them time to cool off.

Keeping in mind that what you say is going to hinge on your individual circumstances, here are some good things you can try to work into your apology.

- Ich habe einen schrecklichen Fehler (bei der Beurteilung) begangen.
- I made a terrible mistake (in judgment).

- Bitte nehmen Sie meine Entschuldigung an.
- Please accept my apology.

Once more, because this is a work environment, you’ll want to use Sie. Even if you previously used du with that person, if your mistake has really caused a rift between you, it may seem rude to address them with du.

2- You Stole Something from a Friend or Family Member (Du hast irgendetwas von einem Freund oder einem Familienmitglied gestohlen)

Remember that handy phrase from earlier, “I shouldn’t have done it”? Your mistakes here have now provided you with the opportunity to get more German practice in by explaining exactly what it was that you shouldn’t have done.

- Ich hätte es nicht nehmen sollen, ohne zu fragen.
- I shouldn’t have taken it without asking.

Not only that, though, you did something pretty bad. That means that you’ve got to acknowledge that fact in clear and direct language. It’s no good to beat around the bush here—in Germany, blunt honesty about your own faults is the best policy.

- Es war falsch von mir.
- I was very wrong to do it.

Last, let’s add a bit about how much your evil deeds have hurt you too.

- Ich habe dich verletzt, und das tut mir furchtbar Leid.
- I hurt you and I feel awful about it.

Words, of course, are only words. Time will tell if you’ve really changed, and that’s what makes the biggest difference when you apologize.


5. Bonus: Sorry When You Don’t Mean Sorry

Man Shrugging

No, I’m not talking about being unrepentant!

There’s one other time when English-speakers commonly say “Sorry,” and that’s when they don’t hear something clearly.

In German, as in many other European languages, this is expressed with the word for “how,” not the word for “what” as in English.

- Wie bitte?
- Sorry? / What did you say?

If you didn’t quite hear something clearly (or you’ve slacked off on your vocab study) then saying wie bitte will let people know they need to speak up a bit.

The nuances of bitte deserve their own post. Suffice it to say that it often means “please” or just adds a flair of politeness to everyday interactions, such as:

- Bitte schön!
- Here you go!

You’ll hear this all the time in cafes or grocery stores in Germany. Any time you’re handing something over to somebody else, use this phrase and you can’t go wrong.


Conclusion

Apologies are complex things that rarely conform to a guide.

It’s easy enough to say “oops, excuse me” for little things, but larger mistakes take skill in interpersonal communication more than anything else.

A really great way to pick up on these social cues (which may be quite different in Germany than what you’re used to) is to watch plenty of TV in German. Somebody’s always apologizing for something in a soap opera!

One thing’s for sure: If you ever find yourself in that situation, the more prepared you are, the better. If all goes well, your honest feelings and heartfelt words will save the day.

If you’d like to learn more about German culture, as well as additional vocabulary, be sure to visit us at GermanPod101.com! Also check out our online community forums to discuss lessons with fellow German-learners, and download our MyTeacher app for a one-on-one learning experience.

We here at GermanPod101.com hope that this article gave you the tools you need to apologize in German. Remember, practice makes perfect. So go step on someone’s foot and tell them sorry in German. (No, please don’t!)

Author: Yassir Sahnoun is a HubSpot certified content strategist, copywriter and polyglot who works with language learning companies. He helps companies attract sales using content strategy, copywriting, blogging, email marketing & more.

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