Pragmatics and Syntax of “Sorry”

Let’s say I’m trying to navigate a crowded aisle at Iceland. A somewhat oblivious young person is staring blankly at the varieties of butter, margarine, and related spreads. In the US, I’d say “Excuse me” in a gentle, regretful way — and I’ve been doing that over here, too. Over here, though, people say “Sorry” when they make room for me to get by, with a tone that sounds unfamiliar to me.
Should I be saying something different? Is “Sorry” a very conventional response to “excuse me” over here?

14 thoughts on “Pragmatics and Syntax of “Sorry”

  1. Sorry is said over here (how fast you forget) too as in “sorry I was blocking you” or “sorry I was in your way.”

  2. After over four years in the US, I still can’t quite get used to the AmE “Excuse me”, which always sounds a bit rude to British ears because the use is a little different. In AmE, as far as I can work out, “Excuse me” is used after you have brushed up against someone by mistake, got in their way etc. In BrE it is pre-emptive, “Excuse me”, to which the person being asked goes, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you there” etc. If you are getting “sorry” to your “Excuse me”, it is because they think that you are being a bit brusque — they think that you are implying that they are in the way. But yes, “sorry” is a conventional response to “excuse me” because the latter in BrE can imply some fault on the part of the person who you are asking to excuse you.

  3. Mark’s response sounds quite reasonable to me, though I’ve not been fortunate enough to make it to the British Isles yet. I try to use “Excuse me” pre-emptively as much as possible, like “Will you please excuse me so that I may pass?” more than “Please excuse my rudeness in brushing past you like that.” We’re also trained to use “Excuse me” after bodily functions that make noise or that might appear rude, like yawning, more in that second strain of meaning than the first.

    One hears often in the US that women are always apologizing for things that aren’t their fault. And even the conventional response at a funeral — “I’m sorry for your loss” — uses this formula. I find myself clarifying pretty often.

    Co-worker: “I’m having a terrible day.”
    Me: “Oh, I’m sorry!”
    Co-worker: *strange look* “It’s not anything you did…”
    Me: “I’m glad to hear that. But I meant, I have sorrow that your day is so bad.”

    It is interesting to me that the word “sorry” has evolved to mean not just “having sorrow” but also “being guilty” or “being at fault.”

    I’m glad I’m not the only person who enjoys thinking about this kind of thing!

  4. Mark, what would sound more conventional if (for instance) one wanted to pass a person who was obstructing the grocery aisle? “I beg your pardon,” perhaps?

  5. I think “Excuse me” is just right in that context, and it expects the response, “Oh, I’m sorry” because the “Excuse me” implies that the person in question is in your way and has not been looking around to check that they are not blocking anyone.

    The AmE / BrE difference is, I think, located in the fact that “Excuse me” sounds a bit less stroppy in AmE. It’s used later in the encounter, and does not imply fault, and so does not require a “sorry” in response.

  6. So I guess I’m just doomed to stroppiness, or to backtracking and finding an open aisle in which to navigate.
    On a related note, the queue in Iceland the other day ran the entire length of the store and doubled back about half way. Even the regulars were mildly put out.

  7. There’s also the tone of voice…

    “Ex-CUSE me” comes over a bit annoyed especially when used preemptively.

    “Excuse ME” is an annoyed response to someone who you think may have complained in error about something you may have done.

    A sort of high pitched, mousy, “excuse me” is more likely to convey the intended meaning of, “May I squeeze past you if that’s not much trouble thanks”.

    Also, the “sorry” can be, “Sorry I didn’t see you there”, as well as, “Sorry for blocking your way”. In a lot of contexts it’s not really an apology, more of just an acknowledgment of your “excuse me” – better than say, “Yes, I saw you there and I’ll get out of your way as soon as it’s convenient”, which would be perceived as more combative than intended.

    Isn’t language a wonderful thing?

  8. Oh, and the Iceland near my parents is brutal for long queues. Tiny store, too many people, not enough cash registers. It must be a requirement for that business model.

  9. I’m not well suited for “high-pitched, mousy” — but I’ll give it a try. I’ll also aim for a rising tone, questioning, to see if that sounds less stroppy.

  10. As American tourists in London in the 70’s, I recall an incident when my mother and I were shopping in Harrods. I mumbled “excuse me” to an older gentleman as I sidled past him. His reply was something along the lines of “You Americans always sound like you’re saying “squeeze me!”

  11. Your other option might be to say “excuse me, please” which would give the impression that you acknowledged the other person’s right to be where they were. That would work in Australia, especially if you said “‘scuse me, please”.

    Incidentally, what response would you expect in the US? “Sorry” would be what I’d expect and what I’d say in that situation.

  12. Two people divided by a common language! I’ve been trying to remember the subtle difference I was once taught between “Excusez-moi” and “Pardonnez-moi” — the main thing I remember is that once in France “Pardon” was inevitably accompanied by elbows. My two thoughts worth are these: could they be saying “Sorry?” — with an upward inflection as if to indicate “Huh?”, or, what if you said “Sorry” first?

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