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Learn How to Say 'I'm Sorry' in Chinese

By Sujanti Djuanda

The Chinese word 对不起【duìbùqǐ】can mean sorry, excuse me or beg pardon and is used when a more serious mistake has been made. The word 不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi】 can be used for less-serious offenses. Learn the various Chinese words for apologizing and what to say when in this article

Saying I'm sorry in Chinese differs depending on the circumstance:

对不起【duìbùqǐ】means “sorry”, “excuse me”, or “beg you pardon” whereas 不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi】means ”sorry”, “beg your pardon”, “excuse me”, “feel embarrassed”, “feel bad/reluctant”.

对不起【duìbùqǐ】is more commonly used to say “sorry” for serious mistakes and in formal situations. To make it stronger, you can add “ 真【zhēn= really】” before 对不起【duìbùqǐ】.

不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi】is used when you made a less serious mistake, if you have bothered others or if someone has gone out of their way to be kind to you. You can also add “ 真【zhēn= really】or 太【tài= extremely, very】” before 不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi】to make it stronger.

对不起【duìbùqǐ】and 不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi】are often interchangeable if the meaning is “excuse me” or “beg your pardon”.

I. Say I'm Sorry In Chinese: 对不起【duìbùqǐ= sorry】

a. 对不起【duìbùqǐ=sorry】is generally used for serious mistakes.

Example 1:

Sorry, I made a mistake. (serious mistake)

对不起【duìbùqǐ=sorry】,我【wǒ=I】 做【zuò=do】 错【cuò=mistake】 了【le】。

对不起,我 做 错 了。

Example 2:

Teacher, sorry I’m late.

老师 【lǎoshī=teacher】,对不起 【duìbùqǐ=sorry】我 【wǒ=I】迟到【chídào=late】 了【le】。

老师,对不起 我 迟到 了。

Example 3:

Sorry, the joke went too far.

对不起【duìbùqǐ=sorry】开玩笑【kāiwánxiào=joke】 开【kāi=open, run】 大【dà=large, big】 了【le】。

The literal meaning is “Sorry, the joke open too big”.

对不起,开玩笑 开 大 了。

b. 对不起【duìbùqǐ=sorry】is used when you heard the bad or serious news.

Example 1:

A: I broke up with him.

B: Oh? I’m sorry.

A: 我【wǒ=I】 和【hé=and】 他【tā=he】 分手【fēnshǒu= break up, divorce】 了【le】。

B: 啊【a=oh】? 对不起【duìbùqǐ=sorry】。

A: 我 和 他 分手 了。

B: 啊?对不起。

Example 2:

A: My grandma passed away.

B: I’m really sorry to hear that.

A: 我【wǒ=I】奶奶【nǎinai=(paternal) grandmother】

去世【qù shì=pass away】 了【le】!

B: 真【zhēn=really】 对不起【duìbùqǐ=sorry】!

The literal meaning is “I’m really sorry.”

A: 我 奶奶 去世 了!

B: 真 对不起!

c. 对不起【duìbùqǐ=sorry】is used for formal situation.

Example:

Sorry, you need the receipt to return the merchandise.

对不起【duìbùqǐ=sorry】, 退【tuì=return】 货【huò= merchandise, goods】 需要【xūyào=need】 发票【fāpiào=receipt】。

对不起,退 货 需要 发票。

II. Apologizing with: 不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi=sorry】

a. 不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi=sorry】is used for a light or not serious mistake.

Example 1:

Sorry, I’m just kidding!

不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi=sorry】, 开玩笑【kāiwánxiào=joke】!

不好意思,开玩笑!

Example 2:

Sorry, I made a mistake. (light mistake)

不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi=sorry】, 我【wǒ=I】 做【zuò=do】 错【cuò=mistake】 了【le】。

不好意思,我 做 错 了。

III. 不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi=feel reluctant, feel bad】

a. 不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi】 is generally used when you feel bad/reluctant to disturb others.

Example 1:

Sorry I have disturbed you.

不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi=feel bad/reluctant】,

打扰【dǎrǎo=bother, disturb】 你【nǐ=you】 了【le】。

不好意思,打扰 你 了。

The literal meaning is I feel bad that I have disturbed you.

Example 2:

Sorry to put you some trouble.

不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi=feel bad/reluctant】, 麻烦【máfan=bother, put you some trouble】 你【nǐ=you】 一下【yīxià=for a while】。

The literal meaning is I feel bad to put you some trouble for a while.

不好意思,麻烦 你一下。

Note:

When 麻烦【máfan=bother, inconvenient】is used, you have to use 不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi=excuse me】, not 对不起【duìbùqǐ=sorry】.

b. 不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi=excuse me】is generally used when you feel bad to ask people to help.

Example:

Excuse me, could you please help me?

不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi= feel bad/reluctant】, 麻烦【máfan=bother, put you some trouble】 能【néng=can】 帮【bāng=help】 我【wǒ=I】 一下【yīxià=for a while】 吗【ma】?

The literal meaning is “I feel bad to bother you, could you please help me for a while?”

不好意思,麻烦 能 帮 我 一下 吗?

c. 不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi】is used when you feel embarrassed because people are too kind to you.

Example:

A: I really feel embarrassed when we go out, it’s always you paying.

B: It doesn’t matter.

A: 真【zhēn=really】 不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi= feel bad】,我们【wǒmén=we】 出来【chūlai=go out】,一直【yīzhí=always】 都是【dōushì=all are】 你【nǐ=you】 付【fù=pay】 钱【qián=money】。

B: 没关系【méiguānxi=it doesn’t matter, never mind】。

A: 真 不好意思,我们 出来,一直 都是 你 付 钱。

B: 没关系。

Description:

There are generally three ways to answer 对不起【duìbùqǐ=sorry】or 不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi=sorry, feel bad/reluctant】:

a.没关系【méiguānxi=it doesn’t matter, never mind】

b. 没事儿【méishìr=it doesn’t matter, never mind】

c. 不要紧【bùyàojǐn=it doesn’t matter, never mind】

Example 2:

A: This is for you.

B: Thank you, I'm very embarrassed.

A: 送【sòng= give as a present】 给【gěi=give】 你【nǐ=you】。

B: 谢谢【xièxiè=thank you】 , 太【tài=very, extremely】 不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi=feel embarrassed】 了【le】。

A: 送 给 你。

B: 谢谢, 太 不好意思 了。

IV. 对不起【duìbùqǐ= excuse me, beg your pardon】and 不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi= excuse me, beg your pardon】

对不起【duìbùqǐ= excuse me, beg your pardon】and 不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi= excuse me, beg your pardon】are often interchangeable.

Example 1:

Excuse me, please let me through.

对不起【duìbùqǐ=excuse me】,让【ràng= let】 一下【yīxià= in a short while】。

The literal meaning is “Excuse me, please let me through in a short while”.

对不起,让 一下。

Or

不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi=excuse me】,让【ràng= let】 一下【yīxià= in a short while】。

不好意思,让 一下。

Example 2:

Excuse me, I’m allergic to perfume.

对不起【duìbùqǐ=excuse me】,我【wǒ=I】 对【duì= adjust, be directed at】 香水【xiāngshuǐ=perfume】 过敏【guòmǐn=allergy】。

Or

不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi=excuse me】,我【wǒ=I】 对【duì= adjust, be directed at】 香水【xiāngshuǐ=perfume】 过敏【guòmǐn=allergy】。

对不起,我 对 香水 过敏。

不好意思,我 对 香水 过敏。

Example 3:

Beg your pardon, I didn’t hear you clearly.

对不起【duìbùqǐ= beg you pardon】,我【wǒ=I】 没【méi=not】 听【tīng=hear】 清楚【qīngchǔ=clear】。

Or

不好意思【bùhǎoyìsi=beg your pardon】,我【wǒ=I】 没【méi=not】听【tīng=hear】 清楚【qīngchǔ=clear】。

不好意思,我 没 听 清楚。

对不起,我 没 听 清楚。

Learning Chinese: Tonal Pronunciation

If you don’t know how to pronounce the Chinese characters, you can read Learning Chinese: Chinese Tonal Pronunciation Explained to Learn Pinyin Pronunciation