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How to Say Sorry in Arabic: Keys to the Perfect Apology

Well, you blew it. Perhaps it wasn’t even your fault. Maybe it was a moment of weakness and you definitely won’t do it again.

The point is, you’ve got to apologize for something now. And you’re going to have to do it in Arabic, which is why, when learning Arabic, how to say sorry is so essential.

Trying to navigate the intricacies of politeness in a new language isn’t the easiest thing in the world. It would be a lot easier if you could just communicate in English—easier for you, that is!

Saying sorry in Arabic is something you shouldn’t do until you’re well past the language-learning level of taking phrases from articles like this one. Each situation that calls for an apology is unique and complex.

But everyone has to start somewhere, and when it comes to how to say sorry in Arabic, lessons like this one are a good place to do so. Even learning a simple “sorry” in Arabic language can have massive benefits. Start with a bonus, and download your FREE cheat sheet - How to Improve Your Arabic Skills! (Logged-In Member Only)

  1. What is an Apology?
  2. Basic Phrases for Apologizing
  3. Asking for Forgiveness
  4. Four Different Approaches to Apologizing
  5. Saying Sorry When it Really Wasn’t so Bad
  6. Learning to Apologize Like a Native
  7. Conclusion

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1. What is an Apology?

3 Ways to Say Sorry

An apology is when one person has wronged another in some way, through word or deed, and now must bear a certain amount of responsibility to right that wrong. In other words, an apology is a way of transforming what has been seen as offensive into what can be seen as acceptable.

Sometimes that’s as easy as saying a set phrase like “I’m sorry.” After all, life happens and we can’t all be perfect. There are bound to be little mishaps from time to time that simply take a tiny acknowledgment of guilt to fix.

But many times, it’s not so simple.

It often takes specific reflection on the offensive act before the other party is satisfied—particularly in formal or serious situations. This is even more apparent in conservative Arab cultures.

Take just one example: You’re a professor, and a student arrives late to your class. Would you prefer that he mumbles “sorry” as he heads to his seat, or that he gives you a more detailed and “real” apology along the lines of “Sorry I’m late, Professor, there was construction on the road.”

It might not matter to you. But it certainly does to others.

Knowing how to navigate these treacherous cultural waters is one of the most important things you can learn in terms of cross-cultural communication. Far more so than just the language itself! That said, when learning how to say sorry in Arabic, phrases like the ones below make for good building blocks as you work toward more complex apologies, and are great for building your core “sorry” in Arabic vocabulary.


2. Basic Phrases for Apologizing

Say Sorry

So, what does saying sorry in Arabic words look like? The simplest way of how to say sorry in spoken Arabic is with the word “sorry.”

  • آسِف
    ʾāsif
    Sorry

Infinitesimally more complicated is “I’m sorry,” which naturally requires the pronoun.

  • أنا اسفة / أنا آسِف
    ana ʾāsif / ana ʾāsifa

In Arabic and in English, there’s also a verb form: I apologize.

  • أنا أعتذر
    ʾanā ʾaʿtaḏir
    I apologize.

This is more formal and slightly heavier in tone. As you can probably guess, something as simple as your choice of words can have a big effect on how the other party perceives your message.

And yet, taking the time to learn “sorry” in Arabic may simply not be enough. Let’s dive a little deeper, and learn how to say “forgive me” in Arabic.


3. Asking for Forgiveness

Asking for Forgiveness

If you ask someone to forgive you, it’s possible that it might actually make them angrier than if you waited for things to blow over naturally.

After all, forgiveness takes a certain amount of sacrifice. And when you’ve been wronged by someone, sacrifice is the very last thing you want to do.

On the other hand, if someone is already past being emotional, but still harbors a little bit of a grudge, asking for forgiveness puts the ball in their court to give up their enmity and move on. It can be a wake-up call, like “I guess it’s time to let this go.”

  • أرجوك سامحني، أتوسّل إليك
    ʾarǧūk sāmiḥnī, ʾatawassalu ʾilayk
    Please forgive me, I beg you.

Let’s take a closer look at that verb: سامِحْنِي‎ (sāmiḥnī).

The triliteral root is س م ح, s-m-ḥ, which is related to permission and magnanimity. For instance, there’s سَمَحَ (samaḥa) which means “to allow; to permit” as well as سَمُحَ (samuḥa) which means “to be generous.”

The verb sāmiḥnī itself translates most directly to the English phrase “forgive me.” If a woman is speaking, it would be sāmiḥinī instead.

And it’s a pretty serious word! You absolutely wouldn’t use it for simple annoyances or misunderstandings that resolve themselves quickly.

The more you pull apart these words and phrases, the more impossible the whole task seems. And yet, tons of second-language Arabic speakers have figured it out. How, then, can you come up with a foolproof way to apologize in Arabic?


4. Four Different Approaches to Apologizing

Woman Covering Her Mouth

There are as many different ways to get an apology across as there are bends in a river. In general, the most effective and heartfelt apologies are a combination of multiple approaches.

Saying sorry isn’t enough on its own, but check out these different strategies and think about how you might express these feelings in Arabic.

1- Trying to Right the Wrong

With this strategy, you implicitly accept guilt and want to show with your actions that you regret what happened.

Righting the wrong could be as simple as paying for something that you accidentally broke, buying someone a meal, or even something as complex as making a thoughtful gift from scratch to show that you care.

The important thing is that you’re expending time, effort, or money on behalf of the other person because they were inconvenienced by you. Here are three different ways to let someone know you’re immediately prepared to make amends.

  • سأحاول إصلاح ذلك
    saʾuḥāwilu ʾiṣlāḥa ḏalik
    I’ll try to fix it.
  • سأشتري لكِ واحدة جديدة
    saʾaštarī lak waḥidah ǧadīdah
    I’ll buy you a new one.
  • يمكنك أن تأخذ طعامي
    yumkinuka ʾan taʾḫuḏa ṭaʿāmī
    You can have my food instead.

What do these phrases have in common? They refer to something in particular, such as “food” in the last example.

2- Accepting Responsibility

Here, you’re explicitly accepting guilt and admitting that it was, in fact, your fault. This is a very valuable trait to have. No matter how much people enjoy making excuses, nobody likes to hear them.

  • أنا المسؤول.
    ʾanā al-masʾuūl.
    I am responsible (for it).
  • لقد كانت غلطتي.
    laqad kānat ġalṭatī.
    It was my mistake.
  • إنها غلطتي
    ʾinnahā ġalṭatī
    It’s all my fault.

As you can see from these two examples, the word غَلَط‎ (ghalata) here means “error” or “mistake.” Idiomatically, in English we can say “it’s my fault,” but in Arabic it’s better to stick with phrasing in the style of “it’s my mistake” or “the error was mine.”

3- Not Doing it Again

As long as you can keep your promise, you’ll definitely want to reassure the other person that you won’t make the same mistake again.

Are you trustworthy? Hopefully you’re not a خائن (ḫāʾin) or a traitor, a snake, or a backstabber. If somebody calls you that, you might want to skip straight to the later part of this article where you learn how to beg for forgiveness. Either that or start a fight.

Assuming that nobody is brawling over an attack on their honor, here are two phrases you can use to try and convince the other person that you’ve turned over a new leaf.

  • .أعِدُك أنني لن أفعَلَ ذلك مرة أخرى
    ʾaʿiduka ʾannanī lan ʾafʿala ḏalika marraẗan ʾuḫrā.
    I promise I won’t do it again.

Of course, with most people, you’re lucky to even get this chance. Your actions have to speak louder than your words here.

4- Explaining Your Actions

Who doesn’t like to stick up for themselves? Although we mentioned earlier that you should try to avoid excuses and stay honorable, it’s not a black-and-white situation.

If the thing that happened really wasn’t that serious, then explaining the circumstances can let the other person step into your shoes for a moment, and understand that you really didn’t mean any harm.

  • لقد كان الطريق مزدحماً
    laqad kān al-ṭarīqu muzdaḥiman
    There was a lot of traffic.
  • الحقيقة أنها ليست لي
    al-ḥaqīqaẗu ʾannahā laysat lī.
    The truth is, it wasn’t mine.
  • لقد كان سوء تفاهم
    laqad kāna sūʾa tafāhum
    It was a misunderstanding.
  • أعتذر بشدة. لم أتمكن من الرد على هاتفي
    ʾaʿtaḏir bišiddah. lam ʾatamakkan min al-rad ʿalā hātifī
    I’m sorry, I couldn’t pick up my phone.

Who knows when you might need phrases like these? As alluded to previously, however, doing this too much is a recipe for being brushed off in the future. If you’re always the one to come up with an excuse, well, congratulations on reaching such an impressive level in Arabic!

But whichever of your friends that are still sticking around might be having second thoughts.


5. Saying Sorry When it Really Wasn’t so Bad

Woman Apologizing for Bumping Someone

Time for something a little lighter: how to apologize in Arabic language for smaller things.

In English, we say the word “sorry” to apologize, but we also use it as a kind of filler word when the tiniest inconvenience has taken place. It doesn’t even matter if it was your fault.

You might say “sorry” when you mishear someone, for instance; but wasn’t it their fault in the first place for speaking so quietly? And how many times have you automatically mumbled an apology when someone bumped into you in a crowded place?

Well, from Morocco to Iraq, people are bumping into each other and mumbling apologies just the same as people do in English-speaking countries. It’s a good idea to learn these two phrases for “excuse me'’ and “sorry” in Arabic.

  • عفوا
    ʿafwan
    Excuse me! (to squeeze past somebody in an elevator)
  • المعذرة
    al-maʿḏirah
    Sorry… (to get someone’s attention)

If you want to be specific about mishearing someone, you can say آسِف (aasif) and then add this simple phrase:

  • ماذا قلت؟
    māḏā qult?
    What did you say?

Lastly, the word عفوا (ʿafwan) means “excuse me,” like the kind of thing you’d say after coughing or sneezing. It’s neutral and formal, so you can easily use it in any situation where you don’t really know your audience.

On the whole, most people find Arabs extremely polite and well-mannered. They might not take unnecessary apologies as far as some British people do, but this is one aspect of Western culture that you can import wholesale into the Middle East.


6. Learning to Apologize Like a Native

Woman Gesturing

You can learn a lot about apologizing in Arabic by watching TV and reading books meant for native speakers.

TV is a bit of a double-edged sword in this case. Soap operas have people apologizing and begging forgiveness at least once an episode, but there aren’t any ordinary daily-life soaps in MSA. Arabic TV shows dealing with everyday situations are all in colloquial Arabic.

The MSA shows you’ll tend to find are the kind of sweeping historical epics that come out around Ramadan. Either that, or Sesame Street.

So for really expressing yourself naturally in Modern Standard Arabic, you’ll have to do a lot of reading. Fiction in translation that you’re already familiar with is an excellent starter. It won’t teach you the cultural norms, but it will give you a great first boost for being comfortable reading the language.

After that, you can move into original articles (because they’re short), literature, and even poetry. Authentic depictions of actual Arab cultures written in Arabic are the ideal way to pick up on real norms of how feelings get expressed—certainly not limited to apologies.


7. Conclusion

All in all, feelings rely heavily on language. Sure, you can shout, scream, and break things, but at the end of the day you’ve got to be clear about what you mean.

We didn’t cover the myriad ways that people might demand or accept apologies in Arabic because there’s simply no end to the depth this topic could reach.

Learning how to say sorry in Arabic is a valuable skill for communication across the Arab world. Even better than that, though, is a thoroughly open mind and a readiness to be extremely flexible when it comes to cultural misunderstandings.

Most people will afford you this luxury as a visiting foreigner. Will you be prepared to offer them the same?

If you want to take your Arabic up a notch, don’t hesitate to grab ArabicPod101’s free trial to get access to over 1060 video and audio lessons.

Before you go, let us know in the comments how confident you feel now about offering an apology in Arabic. Much more confident, or do you still need some time to study and practice? We look forward to hearing from you!

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Author: Yassir Sahnoun is a HubSpot certified content strategist, copywriter and polyglot who works with language learning companies. He helps companies attract sales using content strategy, copywriting, blogging, email marketing & more.