Excuse me!

By Maeve Maddox

Brad K brings up some interesting questions about three words used in a variety of ways:

So, what is the choice, between “Excuse me” and “Pardon me”?

I am looking for an alternative to a phrase I keep misusing, “I’m sorry, but . . .”.  The part that bothers me is that I use this phrase even when I have been offended and am not sorry about interrupting or contradicting . . er .. someone.

excuse (verb) early 13c., “to clear (someone) from blame,” from O.Fr. escuser, from L. excusare “release from a charge,” from ex- “out, away” + causa “accusation, legal action”

NOTE: the s in the verb excuse is pronounced with the /z/ sound [ĭk-skyūz’]. The s in the noun excuse is pronounced with the /s/ sound [(ĭk-skyūs’].

pardon (verb) to refrain from exacting due punishment from someone

sorry (adjective) Pained at heart; distressed, sad; full of grief or sorrow.

All three terms are used with various meanings in different contexts, but in polite conversation they have the weakened sense of expressing a courteous apology for some minor social offense. Excuse me and pardon me are uttered for offenses that range from jostling someone to belching. They are also used when addressing a stranger, or when one hasn’t understood something and wants it repeated.

I’m sorry can express mere sympathy or apology. Like the other two expressions, it can also be used to introduce a contradiction: I’m sorry, but I can’t agree that cats don’t show affection.

I’ve recently developed an aversion to the use of “Excuse me!” spoken belligerently in the sense of “How dare you say what you just said?” A character in a TV drama I was watching the other night said the expression numerous times in response to remarks that he found insulting. It quickly became tiresome.

The Online Etymology Dictionary offers this information about the three words:

Excuse me: use as a mild apology or statement of polite disagreement is from c.1600

Pardon: weaker sense of “excuse for a minor fault” is attested from 1540s.

Sorry: Apologetic sense (short for “I’m sorry”) is attested from 1834; phrase “sorry about that” popularized 1960s by U.S. TV show Get Smart.

The overuse of “I’m sorry” as a form of self-effacement is not a good thing. But, like the “dear” in Dear Sir, these words don’t have to signify an emotional or truthful engagement with the person addressed. They are “lubrication words” like please and thank you–polite words that grease the wheels of social interaction.

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5 Responses to “Excuse me!”

  • Cecily

    It may be worth mentioning that in England, there is a danger: in traditional upper-middle class circles, saying “pardon” or “pardon me” is considered a dreadful faux pas (though “I beg your pardon” is fine).

    For mishearing, such people prefer “what?” or “what did you say?” (even though many other people think that is brusque and rude) and for a mild apology, they prefer a simple “I’m sorry”.

    So whichever you use, someone might think your manners are lacking – unless you have a non-British accent, in which case, you may get away with it.

  • Sandra

    What about “forgive me”??

  • Clarissa Yip

    I really think it depends on context and culture. I’m actually one of those that abuses “i’m sorry” but when other people overuse it too often, it gets annoying.

    Good post!

  • Lai Ka Yau

    Generally only Americans say ‘excuse me’ when they can’t hear what somebody says.

  • Precise Edit

    Nice! When I use these phrases, I mean the following:

    Excuse me: Don’t blame me and don’t punish me! I’m innocent because I had a good reason. I have an excuse! It’s not my fault.

    Pardon me: Oops! I did something wrong–or I’m about to. Please don’t punish me for it.

    Sorry: Gee, that was wrong of me.

    As to how these expressions are used, well, each person may have their own purpose. Pardon me, did I just write “their”? I meant “his or her.”

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