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Secrets of Saying Sorry: “对不起”’s Correct Use

If you’ve ever learned even a little Chinese, you probably know the phrase “对不起(duì bù qǐ)”. In most textbooks, “对不起(duì bù qǐ)” is translated to mean “sorry,” or “I’m sorry.” Other books might say it means “Excuse me”. I often hear my beginning students use this phrase. However, you may notice that Chinese people don’t say it that often. Are all Chinese people being rude? Of course not! The difference is that “对不起(duì bù qǐ)” is not 100% the same as the English phrase “I’m sorry”. In Chinese, “对不起(duì bù qǐ)” is only used when you did something wrong, and caused trouble. Today, we will look at this simple but often incorrectly used phrase.

It’s common for an English speaker to say “sorry” when he or she feels sorry for someone else’s problem. For example, if I told you that I failed my TOEFL exam, you might expect to be able to reply “对不起(duì bù qǐ)”. However, instead of feeling comforted, most Chinese would feel confused by that reply. As we stated above, this phrase is only used when the person saying it did something wrong. It’s not your fault the person failed the exam! An appropriate response for this bad news could be:

  • 啊?太糟了(a? tài zāo le)。Ah? That’s too bad.
  • 别难过(bié nánguò)。Don’t be sad.
  • 怎么会(zěnme huì)?How come this happened?

The only case you could use “对不起(duì bù qǐ)” in response to bad news is if you mentioned something that made the other person sad or uncomfortable. For example,

A:你的狗怎么样(nǐ de gǒu zěnmeyàng)?How is your dog?
B:我的狗死了(wǒ de gǒu sǐ le)。My dog passed away.
A:对不起(duì bù qǐ)!I’m sorry.

In this case, it’s your “fault” that you mentioned the sad thing, so it would make sense to use “对不起(duì bù qǐ)” to apologize.

One other time it’s appropriate to use “对不起(duì bù qǐ)” is when we might use the English phrase “Excuse me”. Again, if you’re causing someone trouble or inconvenience, then you can use “对不起(duì bù qǐ).” For example,

  • 对不起,这是我的座位(duì bù qǐ, zhè shì wǒ de zuòwèi)。= Excuse me, but this is my seat.
  • 对不起,请让我过去(duì bù qǐ, qǐng ràng wǒ guòqù)。= Excuse me, please let me pass.
  • 对不起,请再说一遍(duì bù qǐ, qǐng zài shuō yíbiàn)。= Pardon me, please say it again.

Aside from “对不起(duì bù qǐ),” there are always other phrases one might hear a lot in Chinese. One of these is “不好意思(bù hǎo yì si),” which also means “sorry,” but is not as emotionally strong as “对不起(duì bù qǐ).” In most cases, “不好意思(bù hǎo yì si)” is equal to “excuse me.” For example, if you accidentally bump into someone, “不好意思(bù hǎo yì si)” is a good choice.

Another often-used phrase is “抱歉(bào qiàn)”. This one is quite formal, but is still used very frequently, especially in Taiwan. “抱歉(bào qiàn)” is often preceeded by “很(hěn),” which intensifies it. For example:

  • 我们没有完成合同,我很抱歉(wǒ men méiyǒu wán chéng hétong, wǒ hěn bàoqiàn)。We didn’t complete the contract. I feel sorry.
  • 我不能参加这次会议,我很抱歉(wǒ bù néng cānjiā zhè cì huìyì, wǒ hěn bàoqiàn)。I can’t attend this meeting. I feel sorry.

Because of how formal this phrase is, it typically doesn’t carry much emotional weight. As a native speaker, I usually won’t use this phrase with my friends.

Now you know the secrets of saying “sorry” in Chinese. So, next time your Chinese friend tells you they failed their exam, don’t say “对不起(duì bù qǐ)!” Unless, of course, you caused it to happen.

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Vera Zhang

After graduating from East China Normal University in 2005, Vera Zhang (张晓丽) started her career in teaching Chinese as a second language. Her first teaching job was teaching high school Chinese in Philippines and realized how much she loved this job. In 2007, she came back Shanghai and spent 7 years in ChinesePod. During that, she also went to America to learn language learning knowledge and curriculum editing by teaching in a high school. Now she works in a start-up company and has developed a new Chinese learning app-HelloChinese. She hopes she can share her knowledge in Chinese and make Chinese learning easy and fun.

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