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In English, the "shame"has the following meaning

a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute

However, it's common to hear people say something like

(1) It's a shame we can't take them home with us.

(2) It's a shame that you haven't read this book.

In such situations, speakers definitely don't mean "a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute" by "shame". But for many non-native English speakers, it still sounds rude and offensive to listeners. For instance, I never dare to say to my professors that

(3) It's a shame you haven't return our midterm exam papers.

I feel like, though I am not sure, that I should always try to avoid saying "it's a shame..." to anybody that I should show respect to(am I right?).

So I wonder if we can replace "it's a shame" in (1)(2)(3) by other phrases(as polite as possible) in order to avoid the possible offending.

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it's a shame that is an idiomatic expression that means it's a pity that. You should not take it literally as should be the case with most idioms. So, when I say that it's a shame that I didn't buy this book for such a low price, I'm making the point that not buying the book for such a low price is as though not doing it were a shameful act. Of course, there is absolutely nothing shameful in not doing that. I'm just using this idiom to better convey the idea behind the situation. In no way does this sound offensive or inappropriate.

  • I understand what you mean, but sometimes I may talk to some non-native English speakers who may indeed take its meaning literally due to their unfamiliarity of this usage. That's why I am looking for an alternative to it. – No One May 4 '17 at 3:39
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    @TiWen Cookie Monster gave one to you in the answer. It's "it's a pity that". Another is "it's too bad that". – SovereignSun May 4 '17 at 4:50
  • You can also say "what a pity" – SovereignSun May 4 '17 at 4:51
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You can use 'it's a pity' or 'it's unfortunate' if they sound more polite to you.

It's unfortunate that you haven't return our midterm exam papers.

According to the dictionary:

pity (n.) A matter of regret: It's a pity she can't attend the reception.

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Actually, you're considering the wrong meaning.

Most dictionary definitions of shame have

'a regrettable or unfortunate situation or action.'

or a variant of it like

'An unfortunate development'

among the alternate meanings. That is the meaning that applies in this case. So when you say something like 'It's a shame we can't take them home with us.', plug that meaning over there.

There's no manner of offence, mostly, when it is used like this, although you could use even the phrase 'an unfortunate development' to offend someone if you really wanted to like:

It's a shame he came along.

And when used like that, there's no replacements you can use for 'It's a shame' to make it polite, without changing the sentence's meaning.

  • While you are right that no offence is intended, in many asian cultures the use of the word will be considered offensive. Seeking an alternative phrase is only polite. – Chenmunka May 4 '17 at 9:52
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When travelling in Korea and Japan, I have always used the form:

It might have been better if...

or

Another way would be...

This way you avoid suggestion that the person you are addressing has committed an error. You are suggesting an improvement.
I heard these constructions used by English-speaking Koreans when telling me that I have made a mistake. I would suggest that, if they are using these phrases, they will not cause loss of face.

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Another alternative is “I’m sorry (to hear)”, which might sound less offensive to you since it’s you, the speaker, who is expressing remorse:

(1) I’m sorry (to hear) we can't take them home with us.

(2) I’m sorry (to hear) that you haven't read this book.

It doesn’t really work for your third example, though. I think any sort of expression of pity/shame/sorrow/etc. here will come off as passive-aggressive, because it would make it clear that you think the professor did something wrong.

(3) I’m sorry you haven't returned our midterm exam papers.

I would reword that last one to express your own wish to get the papers back, or make it a question about when you’d get them back, maybe like

I was wondering when we could expect to get back our midterm exam papers.

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