“I’m sorry” is an example of a word that can cause confusion especially when learning how to speak Spanish – since you normally say it on the fly, and abruptly. Fortunately, the principles of “I’m sorry” in Spanish are pretty manageable, and not one to be a burden for the long-term. The three expressions for “I’m sorry” / “Excuse me” can be used interchangeably for the most part as they have almost the same meaning. Normally, there is no marked difference between Lo siento, Perdón and Disculpe as the context or the idea of the three is the same “apologize” for something we did wrong or some accident, or disturbance that we cause.
- Lo siento por llegar tarde. - Sorry for being late.
- Perdón por llegar tarde. - Sorry/Excuse me for being late.
- Disculpa por llegar tarde. - Sorry for being late.
As you can – the three words can be used in exactly the same way, and convey the same meaning.
Easy – right? The good news is normally- yes! The bad news is however there are situations that they can’t (shouldn’t) be used in the same way.
If your friend’s cat died: you would use “lo siento” never “perdón”. If you say perdón means that you are to blame for the death – and I hope that this isn’t the case! Normally you’d hear the news that the cat died of old age, or if it got run over – it wasn’t’ by you! To show a stronger sense of sorrow, you could say, “lo siento mucho”.
If you go to the office or a place of formality you say “disculpe” not “lo siento” or “perdón” because you are only asking for permission to enter in a very polite way, and you’re not apologizing for something you did. So in these cases of “asking permission” use “disculpe”.
Other situations can be:
You’re in a crowded bus and bump into a person. In that case you can say, “Perdón”, or even “Perdona” or “Lo siento“. “Disculpe” is not used here.
Is your boyfriend’s birthday and you forgot, he is very angry, you say: “Perdón”, “Perdona”, “Perdóname” (this case is a more direct way of apologizing, asking for forgiveness) and you can also say “lo siento” or “Lo siento mucho“. “Disculpe” is not used here either.
We can also say that we use certain verbs with each of the words:
- Él dice lo siento por su mala actitud. - He says sorry for his bad attitude.
- Yo pido perdón por las cosas que he dicho. - I’m sorry for the things I’ve said.
- Nosotros pedimos disculpas por el retraso. - We apologize for the delay.
Since it can be used to express the same thing, sometimes it is just a matter of strength of apologizing.
- If you accidentally hurt someone, throw something to the ground, or make a mistake, we generally say: ¡lo siento! But you can use the either these words in this situation: lo siento (least formal), perdón (more formal).
- If you were late to a meeting say: lo siento (least formal), perdón (formal), or disculpe (most formal)
- If you interrupt something such as a meeting, a conversation, etc., say: ¡lo siento (least formal),, perdón (formal), o disculpe! (most formal)
As you can see in situations where all words are appropriate, from least to most formal is: lo siento > perdón > disculpe.
Although are the following situations:
Situations in which you should use ¡disculpe!
- If you ask a favor you say: ¡disculpe!
- If you enter in a place of formality, in the sense of “asking permission to come in, you say: ¡disculpe!
- If you want to get the attention of someone you say: ¡disculpa!
- If you ask for the address of a place you may start by saying: ¡disculpa!
Situations in which you should use ¡perdón!
- If you are to blame for something you say: ¡perdón!, For example if there is a problem in your family by your fault or a fight with your boyfriend or friend and it was your fault.
- If you say something wrong you would later say: ¡perdón!
- You can also use the word ¡perdón! Instead of ¡digo! (in terms of, “I meant to say”) For example: if you mean to say Maria instead of Laura, “Laura is .. ah! perdón .. Maria is my friend.”
Situations in which you should use ¡lo siento!
- If you don’t want to say something, something like a secret or confidential information says ¡lo siento! – “Lo siento pero no puedo contarte que pasó en la fiesta.” (I’m sorry but I can’t tell you what happened at the party.)
- If you did something but it was not your intention you say: ¡lo siento!
- To offer offer condolences, again:: ¡lo siento!
Well, this covers most situations where you can use the three expressions of “I’m sorry” in Spanish. Just remember that all three are used in the same way in most situations (as mentioned above), as there is no specific rules that says: here we use “lo siento”, here we use “perdón” or here we use “disculpe”. It really is just according either to the unique and subtle context and how strong you want to apologize.
Finally, the last point to touch on is that there is confusion between the words: perdón, perdona, perdone, perdóname y perdóneme, the difference is the conjugation:
Perdón is just an expression.
Perdona is the conjugation of the verb in Informal commands. (tú)
Perdone is the conjugation of the verb in Formal commands. (usted)
Perdóname is the conjugation of the verb in Informal commands reflexive form.
Perdóneme is the conjugation of the verb in Formal commands reflexive form.
So the difference is only the conjugation, but the meaning is the always the same. Same is with disculpa, disculpe, discúlpame y discúlpeme.
I hope that the information was sufficient and useful for you. And if it wasn’t – I’m sorry!!! ¡LO SIENTO! (Not the other two!)