Just learning how to say “I’m sorry” in Spanish may not always be enough; sometimes social situations need a little smoothing over. Maybe it’s something you’ve said or done. Maybe you just want to express your sympathy for another’s misfortune. In any case, words count, so let’s learn some vocabulary and expressions.
la pena — mental or spiritual anguish, misfortune (something to be sorry about that's not physical pain)
Me da pena. — It gives me pain (It causes me distress.)
¡Ay, qué pena! — What a drag! (What a misfortune!)
Be careful, because pena is a “false friend” corresponding to “pain”—it does not mean physical pain.
el dolor — pain, usually physical
dolor — to hurt, to ache, to feel pain
Tengo dolor de cabeza. — I have a headache.
Doctor, me duele la cabeza. — Doctor, my head aches.
Le duele la espalda. — His back hurts.
Whether or not you caused the pain, you will want to express your sympathy.
compadecer — to sympathize (literally, to suffer with)
Lo compadezco — I sympathize
sentir — to feel, to sense
Lo siento — I'm sorry
Lo siento is also appropriate for a social gaffe, but when you are responsible you will want to use a form of…
disculparse — to be forgiven
…where you are literally asking not to be held culpable.
Suppose you step on someone’s toe, you momentarily forget a name, you forget an appointment—there are so many small social misfortunes. You say:
¡Discúlpeme, por favor! — Forgive me, please!
¡Disculpe! — Forgive! (me, is implied)
(Background for grammar buffs: the verb is disculpar “to forgive” but the form is the present subjunctive, conveying “May you forgive…” or “I hope you forgive…”)
If you have to interrupt someone at a task, in order to get their attention, you should apologize by saying:
Disculpe la molestia… — Forgive the bother…
And no, you are not asking advance forgiveness for some illegal act; molestar is another “false friend” meaning “bother”, not molest.
Finally, let’s deal with situations where you need to apologize in advance for what you are about to do, such as step in front of someone to reach your seat in a theater, or a bus or plane. Or you may need to excuse yourself from a group such as at a dinner table or a conversational gathering. In these cases you are actually asking permission, so remember to say:
con su permiso por favor — with your permission please
con permiso — permit (me)
And if you should have the bad luck to trip and fall into someone’s lap as you clamber to your seat, by all means say:
¡perdóneme! — Pardon me! (please)
¡perdón! — pardon! (me)
Just don’t say permiso in the above case. ¡Ay, qué pena! (How embarrassing!)
Here is a list of words and expressions on how to say you’re sorry in Spanish—with related phrases:
compadecer — to sympathize with
lo compadezco — I sympathize
disculpar — to forgive, to exculpate
disculparse — to be forgiven, to be sorry
discúlpeme — forgive me
el dolor — pain, hurt
dolor de cabeza — headache
doler — to hurt, to ache, to feel pain
me duele la cabeza — my head hurts, aches
la molestia — bother, annoyance
molestar — to bother, to annoy
la pena — mental pain, anguish, distress
me da pena — it causes me distress
sentir — to feel, to sense
lo siento — I'm sorry (for something)