Can anyone help me with the difference between "I'm sorry" and "I'm afraid"?

In the four following sentences, should I use "sorry", "afraid" or can I use both? And why?

  1. I’m ________________ , I’m _________________ I can’t speak Spanish very well.

  2. I’m ________________ , can you say that again please?

  3. I’m ________________ his line is busy.

  4. I’m ________________ but he’s in a meeting at the moment.

2 Answers 2


Interesting question. Your usage of the phrase

I'm sorry (but)

is a formal, polite way of apologizing for something which can not be fulfilled, whereas using

I'm afraid (that)

is used by BrE speakers to mean

I fear you will be disappointed...

when your request can not be fulfilled. Both mean you will not get what you want.

  1. I’m sorry , I’m afraid I can’t speak Spanish very well.
  2. I’m sorry, can you say that again please?
  3. I’m sorry/afraid his line is busy.

4.a I’m sorry but he’s in a meeting at the moment.
4.b I’m afraid he’s in a meeting at the moment.

The difference may become more apparent in

I'm sorry your parrot is dead.
I'm afraid your parrot is dead.

You can only use the first to extend condolences, but both might be used to inform the owner about their feline.

  • 1
    Thank you for this very clear answer! Just one question: in sentence 3, if I choose "I'm sorry" is the comma compulsory or optional after "sorry"? Actually, as there is no comma, I would have chosen "afraid". Is "sorry" correct without any comma in this sentence? Dec 28, 2016 at 18:26
  • The comma is optional for either "I'm sorry" or "I'm afraid".
    – Peter
    Dec 28, 2016 at 18:30
  • @Peter Are you certain there is no difference in meaning between "I'm sorry, his line is busy." and "I'm sorry his line is busy."? I would say Jessica is correct in saying that "afraid" is the only correct option (with the assumed context in mind) in the comma-less version, and "sorry" would be correct only if it was followed by a comma. I would use "I'm sorry his line is busy." as an apology to someone complaining that "his" line is busy, as in this conversation: A: ...but his line is engaged and I can't reach him! B: I'm sorry his line is busy, but I can't do anything about it.
    – user3395
    Dec 28, 2016 at 19:00
  • Not just BrE. "I'm afraid he's not in the office at the moment" would not be unusual in AmE.
    – Andrew
    Dec 28, 2016 at 20:49
  • 1
    I don't think so since the speaker would have no control over the line being busy, why would they apologize? Perhaps it could expand into "I'm sorry for you that his line is busy." in the same way as "I'm sorry your cat died." The comma is optional.
    – Peter
    Dec 28, 2016 at 22:47

I'm afraid can also mean Sorry, when a request will probably not be fullfilled or attended. However, in order to perfom this function, a personal pronoun must come after afraid, also you can see that when talking about fearing something, it is usually proceeded by: ing. Pay attention to these examples:

I'm afraid of asking the teacher = I don't want to ask the teacher, I'm ashamed.

I'm afraid 'HE' has just left = Sorry, he has just left.

I'm afraid of diving into this sea = This sea may be deep, and I'm afraid of heigh.

I'm afraid 'Mr.Thompson' is busy in a meeting right now. = Sorry, but Mr.Thompson is having a meeting now, therefore he can't talk to you.


I’m sorry / afraid I can’t speak Spanish very well.

I’m sorry, can you say that again please?

I’m sorry / afraid his line is busy.

I’m sorry / afraid but he’s in a meeting at the moment.

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