“I’m sorry to hear that”: Meaning & 3 good alternatives

In the English language, there are several phrases that we use for no other reason than to be polite and to show that we’re thinking about others, not just ourselves.

One such phrase is “I’m sorry to hear that”.

What does “I’m sorry to hear that” mean?

“I’m sorry to hear that” means that you can understand this person is in a great deal of pain, based upon what they’ve told you. Usually, we would say this phrase when we hear bad news about other people, it could be that they lost their job, have a loved one who has just died, or are struggling with their life in one way or another.

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What is the meaning of “Sorry” in the context of “I’m sorry to hear that”?

“Sorry” is a phrase that we tend to say when we do something wrong—an apology.

The apology is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. And it’s something that it does take a very sophisticated mind to be able to comprehend.

Most of the animals aren’t able to realise when they’ve done something wrong, as emotion is not part of their evolution.

The concept of the apology requires empathy and a basic understanding of morality. These are things which separate us from the chimps we evolved from.

And despite what some might tell you, an apology is not a sign of weakness.

Origin of the phrase “I’m sorry to hear that”

The word “sorry” comes from the Old English “Sarig”- which means distressed, or full of sorrow”. Which makes perfect sense when you consider that when you’re sorry, you’re often distressed about what you’ve done and the impact that your actions have had on other people.

It wasn’t until about 1834 that it came to be used as an apology. The introduction of the phrase “Sorry about that” was popularised in the 1960s by a US TV Show- Get Smart.

So when you say you’re sorry, you’re saying that you’re distressed about your actions and the consequences of them upon other people.

The problem using “I’m sorry to hear that”

If sorry is used as an apology, and an apology is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, why do we say “sorry to hear that?”.

Whatever has happened, we don’t say this when something within our control is the issue. I’m sure you didn’t kill your friend’s grandmother or get them fired from their job.

This raises the question of “what are we apologising for?”. You should only say “sorry” when you do something wrong.

And this is an annoying aspect of the English language. How words can change meaning based upon the context in which they’re used.

Is it a problem?

But I think there is a justification for saying “sorry to hear that”.

As mentioned earlier, sorry has its origins in Sarig- distressed. In this scenario, the word “sorry” is not being used as an apology, but simply an indication that we are not happy about the situation.

You are still filled with pain, but not because of something you’ve done, because of something which is outside of your control. Even though the cause of this pain is different, the amount and impact are the same. What has been done, and there is nothing you can do to change that.


Another word we get from Sarig is Sore. As most of you will likely know, Sore means in pain. If you’re feeling sore, that means you have done something which has put you in physical distress. Many of you might describe yourself as having a “sore throat”- a throat that hurts.

You might also say that something is “sorely needed”. This is when the absence of that thing is making things harder, and everything would be better if it was there.

It seems kind of obvious when you think about it, that sorry and sore come from the same root word.


The phrase “I’m sorry to hear that” can change meaning when there is the addition of the new word. And that word is “but”.

“I’m sorry to hear that but” is a slightly less direct way of saying “I don’t care”. It will usually be said after a bad excuse is given.

Sorry for being late boss. My kid didn’t want to go to school, it was a nightmare getting him ready.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, but you are supposed to be here at 8:30.”

“I’m sorry to hear that but” means there are more important things than what you’ve just said.


Abbreviations are another part of the English language that can make talking quicker and easier. Instead of having to say two separate words, we can just say one, one everyone will know what we’re talking about.

The two words will be joined together with an apostrophe.

In this example “I” and “am” are turned into I’m- We keep the I, kill the a, and join the I and m.

Other examples of commonly abbreviated words are…

You are you’re

We will- we’ll

And one that causes a bit of controversy- which I might talk about in another article- is y’all.

Alternatives to saying “I’m sorry to hear that”

“I’m sorry to hear that” isn’t the only phrase that we can use to show that we can feel the pain of other people.

“I can’t imagine what that’s like” shows that even though we don’t know what it’s like for them to be going through this, we can imagine the amount of suffering they must be going through.

“You have my deepest sympathy”- likely one of the most direct ways of saying it. Sympathy is when we try to get our head around the amount of pain that another person is in.

“Commiserations” is suitable for less formal situations, such as when someone loses a small bet, or when they lose a job they weren’t too fussed about losing.


“I’m sorry to hear that” is a response to hearing bad news about someone else. At first, it might seem odd that we’re apologising for something we didn’t do, but sorry has its origins in Sarig (in distress).

The addition of the but changes the meaning entirely, and the phrase now means “I don’t care”.

It’s one of those phrases that has become such a crucial part of the English language, we don’t even think about it, but when you do, you get to learn a lot.