Sorry in Chinese: How to Apologize Correctly

Done something wrong? Didn’t hear something right, or do you want to apologize for something? There are many circumstances where it can be advantageous to know how to say sorry in Chinese. We will cover this topic in today’s post.

Let’s start with the most common and popular phrase “对不起 duìbuqǐ.” You most often use it in formal ways when you have embarrassed yourself, for example, when you say: 

Wǒ wàng le nǐ de míng zi, zhēn duì bù qǐ.
I forgot your name, I’m so sorry.

duì bù qǐ.

So why does 对不起 mean sorry in Chinese anyway? It’s to do with the way the word is structured. 对 can mean “treatment towards,” and “起” is a result that means “to rise to.” If you say “对不起,” it’s as if you’re saying “my treatment doesn’t rise to standard.” For example:

wǒ duì bu qǐ nǐ.
I’ve done wrong by you.

Over time, you could shorten “我对不起你” to simple “对不起” to mean “sorry.”

A final note about 对不起: It’s a more intense way of saying sorry in Chinese compared to the other words we’ll cover in this article. If you accidentally bump into someone on the subway, it would be a bit intense to say “对不起.” 对不起 is better for a circumstance where you feel genuinely embarrassed or guilty and want to express this to your conversation partner.

The following phrase is used when you are saying “Excuse me,” like when you ask someone a question when you are out or need to get somebody’s attention.

bù hǎo yì si.
Sorry about that. -or- Excuse me…

Technically, 不好意思 means “how embarrassing,” but this has naturally led to a couple of iterations. It can simply mean “sorry,” or it can be the polite way of getting someone’s attention when you need help. Suppose you are at a shop and would like the shop employee to give you a hand, you may start by simply saying “不好意思” and then asking for help.

More Examples:

To say you are “really” sorry for something, you add the character 真 zhēn.

zhēn bù hǎo yì sī!wǒ bǎ nǐ jiā de mǎ tǒng nòng huài le.
I’m really sorry that I broke your toilet.

bào qiàn.
I sincerely apologize.

抱歉 bào qiàn is another way to say sorry. 抱 bào means hold, 歉 qiàn means regret. So the literal translation would be “holding regret,” i.e., regretting something. It’s a bit more formal, but then again, often people will stand on ceremony when apologizing so it’s still quite commonly heard.

dào qiàn
To apologize.

道歉 is the word you’ll use when you’re talking about an apology. You don’t use 道歉 directly to say “I’m sorry,” but you might say “Go apologize to him” or “He gave me an apology yesterday”:

nǐ qù xiàng tā dào qiàn.
Go apologize to him.

tā zuótiān xiàng
He gave me an apology yesterday.

Note that when you specify “an” apology that you add the measure word 个.

How to Say Sorry in Chinese

If you really want to impress native speakers, then you should consider using one of the following phrases. They admit you have made a mistake, and it is your fault. However, they can also be used to empathize while admitting something is wrong, for example:

shì wǒ de cuò.
It’s my fault.

zhè ge fàn tài nán chī le, shì wǒ de cuò!
This food tastes so gross, it’s my fault!

wǒ cuò le.
I was wrong.

The above phrase can be used in all situations. You can also repeat it to comfort someone unsatisfied or irritated by something trivial you might have done.

shì wǒ bù duì.
It’s my bad.

The literal translation of 是我不对 shì wǒ bù duì is “I was not correct.” It is similar to the English saying, “It’s my bad,” and expresses regret or guilt for making any mistake, big or small.

If you want to say sorry in Chinese and you didn’t mean for the accident to happen, you can use this phrase.

wǒ bù shì gù yì de! 
I didn’t mean it! / I didn’t do it on purpose!

Ways to Respond to Somebody Apologizing:

The following phrase is the most common one you would hear for apologizing:

méi guān xi.
It’s Okay.

Just like in English, you might want to tell somebody to not worry about a glass of water spilled, and you would use the following:

bié dān xīn.
Don’t worry about it.

The following phrase is not only handy to know for responding to an apology but can also be used when being asked, “What’s wrong?” or “Are you alright?”

méi shì.
It’s nothing.

If the problem is not a problem, you can use this phrase to tell somebody to not worry about it:

suàn le ba.
Forget about it.

Other Phrases with Sorry in Chinese

Sorry in Chinese

bào qiàn máfán nǐ le.
I am sorry to trouble you.

bù hǎo yì sī, wǒ jīn tiān bú néng qù le.
I am sorry that I won’t make it today.

duì bu qǐ, wǒ yào xiān zǒu
Sorry, I have to go.

bào qiàn, wǒ lái wǎn le.
Sorry that I am late.

bú hǎo yì sī,ràng yī xià kě yǐ ma?
Sorry, do you mind stepping aside?

xià yī cì bù huì de! 
It won’t happen again!

So now you know how to say sorry in Chinese in case you are late for a business meeting, want to get somebody’s attention, ask them to step aside, or you simply need to apologize for making a mistake. It is always better to say sorry and admit when you have done something wrong, and you might find it was not a big issue anyway.

Now if you want to thank somebody for saying sorry in Chinese head on over to this post.

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Chinese In Business
29 July , 2021
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