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An online dictionary has the following definition for "too bad".

used to say that you are sorry about a situation

My questions are:

  • Is "too bad" to a large extent synonymous with "I feel sorry"?
  • Or does it sound mocking the situation of the listener? (so that it is generally inappropriate to say "Too bad he died so young".)
  • Does the answer to the above change for "Too bad" and "That's too bad"?
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    On their own, 'Too bad.' is often sarcastic, whereas 'That's too bad.' conveys (some) sympathy.
    – mcalex
    Commented Jun 17, 2022 at 2:02
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    It does not matter what anyone says it all depends on the tone you use when you say it.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 17, 2022 at 13:35
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    @chepner I'm almost certain I've heard "too bad" said with sympathetic tone. Hard to prove, though.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 17, 2022 at 14:11
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    @fattie I'm surprised you feel that way. Too bad. Commented Jun 17, 2022 at 17:14
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    My four year old always insists that "too bad" is a mean word. Commented Jun 17, 2022 at 19:24

4 Answers 4

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Do not use the two word response "too bad", at least in Australia. As a standalone sentence, its closest translation would be "I don't care" rather than genuine, or mocking, sympathy.

Context might be a person asking a favor - Q: "Can I cut in line? I'm in a hurry and really need to get to the front quickly". A: "Too bad".

However, you can absolutely use "too bad" as part of a full sentence and it will be interpreted as genuine if the rest of the sentence and tone are genuine.

"That's too bad you're feeling sick, I hope you get better soon" will never be interpreted as mocking or as "I don't care".

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    Same in America and England. "Too Bad" alone is never used in a genuine compassionate way - at least I've never heard it used that way.
    – TKoL
    Commented Jun 17, 2022 at 12:12
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    In AmEng, it's tone dependent. You can use it to express disappointment, but you need the appropriate inflection. "The concert was cancelled because the lead singer got sick."/ (sigh) "Too bad." Commented Jun 17, 2022 at 14:09
  • Becasue it is tone-dependent, it is very unwise to use it in written communication.
    – fectin
    Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 15:49
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'Too bad', 'that's too bad', etc, are usually used to express sympathy, and this can be

Genuine:

Person A: My dog died last week.

Person B: That's too bad. I'm so sorry!

Ironic:

Angry entitled person: I need to go to the front of the line (queue)! I have an important job/a child/a plane to catch!

Other person: Too bad they don't have a special line just for Really Important People.

The meaning depends on the situation and possibly the tone of voice of the speaker.

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  • To this answer I'd just add that "too bad" by itself, rather than as phrased here, can often sound unsympathetic or ironic (as some other answers suggest). When in doubt, I'd avoid saying just "Too bad." "That's too bad" is generally better and less dismissive, but still not foolproof. In this answer's context it's totally fine, since it's followed by a genuine expression of sympathy. Inflection can also go a long way; it's more of a minefield in text communications. Commented Jun 17, 2022 at 17:33
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    Inflection, yes. Personally I would reserve 'too bad' for genuine expressions of sympathy about fairly minor things. You car broke down, yes, a loved one has died or is sick, no. Commented Jun 17, 2022 at 18:24
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So... it seems this may vary by region.

That said, IMHO, in the US, I would be cautious of ever using "[that's] too bad" except in a sarcastic manner. The connotation is often either "I don't care" or (sarcastic, unsympathetic) "glad I'm not you".

Alternatives that are sympathetic include "that's so sad", "that's terrible" (or "horrible", "awful", etc.), "so sorry to hear that", or even "oh no!".

As another answer noted, you might be okay if it's part of a longer sentence that makes genuine sympathy more explicit, but even then it's probably better to use "that's awful" or similar.

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  • 'sux 2 be U' is what we'll all be saying in 20 years time. Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 8:11
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I like the comment that mentioned that without other context, "too bad" sounds sarcastic and "that's too bad" sounds empathetic.

However, tone and context can reverse everything, so go with what feels right.

For example, in Mean Guns, people disagree with Ricky when he states he despises insults, even simple insults as "damn xxx". Later, Dee kills Ricky, saying "that's just too damn bad, Ricky". So, even with "that's", it was still sarcastic.

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