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There are some expressions showing your sympathy, such as "That's too bad" or "I'm sorry to hear that." But I'm not sure how to use them correctly.

I've just read a grammar article which says that you never use the sentence "That's too bad" or "Too bad" without sarcasm. Is that true? There are two examples. One is when someone had to work for two weeks without any days off. Another is when someone's mother has been hospitalized because of her illness. In these situations, what sentence is most appropriate to use showing my real sympathy? I thought I could say "That's too bad."

Can you tell me what sentence is good for these situations? And if there is any difference between these two sentences, can you explain it?

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This question is more about social interaction than language use.

Think about how you'd express your "real sympathy" in your native language. There are socially accepted formulas in every language and every society and culture, but your "true feelings" are expressed more by the tone of voice and the body language that you use rather than the words (unless the words are obviously inappropriate for the occasion).

If someone else's mother's been hospitalized for an illness, That's too bad isn't the best expression. I'm really sorry to hear that plus, perhaps, I hope she'll recover quickly is much better. Stick to the formulaic if you can't come up with a spontaneously appropriate expression.

My son, a native speaker of Chinese, not really a native Anglophone, says too bad all the time. I find it annoying, but I think he learned it from me. I use it for stuff like having to work two weeks straight without any time off and other unpleasantries of everyday life, but never to express sympathy for sickness or death or anything else that's serious.

Although it's difficult to say "Too bad" without sounding sarcastic, it's possible. I wouldn't advise it, though, because it's too terse, too curt, to be sympathetic. "That's too bad" is a little better, but, depending on your tone of voice and body language, it can express sympathy, but it's not the best way to be taken seriously by someone who's grieving about a loss or an ill relative.

  • I hear bummer all the time, but I guess that is among friends not for someone's mother. – Thor May 9 '13 at 5:36
  • @Thor: You probably will hear "bummer" from younger speakers. None of my friends would ever say that for anything unless they wanted to sound funny. It's generational and, at least to my ears, a very low-register cliche appropriate for the inarticulate at heart. – user264 May 9 '13 at 5:41
  • @Bill Franke;Thank you for the clarification. This is very very helpful, because I tend to use " That's too bad." all the time. Understanding the subtle difference of these fixed phrases and using them in an appropriate way is very difficult. – tennis girl May 9 '13 at 6:04
  • @tennisgirl I'd also add that it depends on the severity of the situation; if you use a sincere tone of voice to say "That's too bad" in response to someone having to work late and miss a party, that's one thing. But even if you speak sincerely, I don't think it will be likely to be well-accepted if someone's mother is sick (as Bill says in the answer). – WendiKidd May 9 '13 at 23:58

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