Today, I will study the differences between “Sorry” and “Excuse me” and the Japanese equivalents “gomennasai” and “sumimasen”. It seems that everybody knows these expressions, but there might be some things about them that you don’t know.
According to Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, “sorry” has three definitions. I will list them and add Japanese translations to each English sentence.
1. feeling sadness or regret
I am sorry to say that I won't be able to accept the job. (sono shigoto o hikiukerarenai no wa zannen des.)
I am sorry to hear of your father's death. (okuyami moushi agemas.)When you say "I am sorry to say that" or "I am sorry to hear that”, you should use “zannen des”. Also, since “zannen des” is, by itself, not quite sufficient to express your sadness at someone’s passing, “okuyami moushi agemas” would be a good phrase to add.
2. full of shame and regret, apologetic
If you say you are sorry, we will forget the incident. (anata ga gomen to ittara,/ayamattara, watashitachi wa kono ken o wasuremasho.)
Aren't you sorry for what you have done? (jibun ga yatta koto o warui to omowanai no?)Saying “gomennasai” or “sumimasen” is an act of apologizing. For the second example, you should use “warui to omou” rather than “gomen” because the sentence only refers to feeling apologetic, not actually apologizing.
3. used to express mild regret, disagreement or refusal
Can you lend me a pound? No, I am sorry I can't. (1pound kahiste kureru? gomen/ warui kedo, kasenai.)
I am sorry I am late. (okurete gomen/ sumimaen.)When you convey your refusal or disagreement with “I am sorry but…”, it is natural to start with “warui kedo”. It is okay to simply use “gomen(nasai)” or “sumimasen” for the second sentence, but don’t forget to use the te-form of the verb (before “gomen” and “sumimasen”) if you also state your reason for apologizing.
Next, here is the definition of “Excuse me”:
used as an apology when one interrupts, disagrees, disapproves or has to behave impolitely
Excuse me, is anybody sitting here? (sumimasen, koko ni dareka suwatteimas ka?)
Excuse me, can I get past? (sumimasen, toottemo ii des ka?)
“Sumimasen” is a very useful phrase because you can use it for both “I am sorry” and “Excuse me” and it can also be used for expressing feelings of gratitude. However, it can’t be used for the first definition of “sorry” and does not always fit with the second and third ones either. Thus, it is important to remember the situations in which it is appropriate and sentence patterns as well.