What is the difference between words "pardoned" and "forgiven"?

For instance:

After ten years in prison, Stephen was {pardoned/forgiven} and set free.

I found the definitions of both:

Pardoned - forgive or excuse (a person, error, or offense).
Forgiven - stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.

And to conclude from definitions I would say that "forgiven" encompasses "pardoned", but I am not sure about that. So how can one decide where to use pardoned or forgiven?

  • 7
    Have you looked at other definitions? "Pardoned" has a specific meaning within a government.
    – Catija
    Feb 22, 2017 at 22:04

5 Answers 5


If I am pardoned, I am no longer subject to the consequences of having been found guilty (e.g. of a crime). If I am forgiven, I am no longer the cause of negative emotions in the one who forgave me. You can say that pardoning is generally related to a change in punishment or consequences, while forgiving is generally related to a change in feelings or perspective. There is some overlap between the two words, though.

  • 7
    Take it one step farther. A pardon affects primarily the guilty person, changing his/her status. Forgiving is a cessation of negative emotions on the part of others; they are the primary beneficiaries. The guilty person may or may not care.
    – fixer1234
    Feb 22, 2017 at 22:53
  • It depends on which definition of "pardon" you mean. I can "pardon" someone for giving me offense, which means both that they are not subject to the consequences and that I forgive them.
    – Andrew
    Feb 22, 2017 at 23:04
  • 1
    You make it sound like no one has ever used "pardon" to mean "forgive"... People say "Pardon me, but ___" all the time, in the same way they say "excuse me".
    – Catija
    Feb 22, 2017 at 23:05
  • I don't think this is a distinction most English speakers would make in ordinary conversation.
    – jpmc26
    Feb 23, 2017 at 22:18
  • 2
    I'm a native English speaker and I make that distinction, which is why I bothered to write up an answer. I would never say I pardoned someone if I meant my feelings had softened toward them. I would never say I forgive them if my main point is that they are off the hook in spite of their misdeeds.
    – Darryl
    Feb 23, 2017 at 22:59

It depends on the context. Pardon has multiple meanings, one of which is to "forgive" or "excuse". This is the definition used in simple expressions like "pardon me", or "I beg your pardon."

Another more formal definition of "pardon" is to be legally forgiven for some kind of crime by an official state agency. Usually a pardon is only issued after the person has been convicted of the crime. An official pardon means that the person pardoned is (eventually) cleared of any record of the criminal charge.

A pardon can be issued for various reasons, not always because the person is innocent:

A pardon is a government decision to allow a person who has been convicted of a crime to be free and absolved of that conviction, as if never convicted. Today, pardons are granted in many countries when individuals have demonstrated that they have fulfilled their debt to society, or are otherwise considered to be deserving.

More info

Forgiveness is more generic. It's more often used to describe a personal decision to excuse someone for some kind of offense. As previously mentioned, you can also "pardon" them for that offense, but outside of certain "set" phrases, this use is not common in modern English.



has more of a legal meaning

to be pardoned for a crime



has more of a moral meaning

The shooter in North Carolina was forgiven by the families of the victims, but was not legally pardoned and still faces time in jail.

  • Was he forgiven though? It's good to post an example but I wouldn't just make up factual details like that. Feb 23, 2017 at 4:53
  • @DepressedDaniel - Yes, he was forgiven, publicly, by the families of the victims (at least some of them; I haven't been able to find out whether all of the victims' families spoke public words of forgiveness). See washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/06/19/… for one story about it. (Practically the first Google result I found).
    – rmunn
    Feb 24, 2017 at 8:39

"Forgiven" probably doesn't fit very naturally into this sentence regardless of what you mean. "Forgive" isn't a word that's typically applied to courts, governments, the legal system, etc.

The thing that determines what word fits best here depends on why the prisoner was released.

  1. If the prisoner has received a legal pardon as Andrew explains, then "pardon" is the word you should choose. Native speakers will assume you intend to use the legal definition.
  2. If the prisoner was originally sentenced to 10 years in prison and that sentence is now complete, then the prisoner just completed their sentence. This isn't typically thought of as any kind of "forgiveness"; the person received a just punishment (assuming they were actually guilty). You can say, "After ten years in prison, Stephen completed his sentence."
  3. There are some other possibilities for why the prisoner was released. For example, maybe the sentence was reduced to 10 years. Example reasons:

    • The prisoner won an appeal and the conviction was overturned.
    • The sentence was reduced for good behavior or community service or similar reasons.

    "Forgiven" doesn't do a good job describing these or other reasons that aren't coming to mind, either. It would be better to find terms specific to those situations.

If your intention is to say that someone personally forgave the prisoner, then that's not a very natural way of organizing the sentence. Consider a separate clause or sentence. For example:

After ten years in prison, Stephen was set free; the victim forgave him.

This is very unspecific about the reason the prisoner was released. Being unspecific is fine if you don't intend to convey any specifics.


Others have mentioned legal/emotional aspects, but I think there's some missing points that are important for someone learning the language.

  • "all is forgiven" is correct but not "all is pardoned"
  • "pardon me, I must go to the loo" is correct but not "forgive me, I must go to the loo".
  • "forgive me for I have sinned" is correct, but "pardon me but I have sinned" means something entirely different (and sounds funny to an English speaker).

Pardon is the act of expunging (erasing) a transgression - whereas forgiving neither implies erasing nor really transgressions necessarily.

Another saying that is common is "Forgive but don't forget". I would argue that given the above nuance of pardon meaning make as though the transgression didn't happen, one could say that this statement literally means "forgive but don't pardon" (even though you wouldn't really say that in english).

Without getting too theological, "forgive me for I have sinned" is a good one to look at because the idea is that God doesn't pardon you, he just accepts your flaws but forgives you anyways.

The two words are very clearly expressing something different.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .