I'm trying to construct a sentence in which the speaker 'feels apologetic' toward someone. I want to avoid hinting at a sense of guilt or shame etc so that rules out 'I felt contrite/ rueful/ regretful/ remorseful/ repentant/ guilty' and similar sentences.

The context where I want to use this is:

However, no matter how much heart he had put into it I could not possibly hand out those paper bundles to the readers. I showed him the booklet I had brought with me. I had put in hours of painstaking effort in arranging the entire content myself. His eyes grew wide as he turned over the pages one by one, and I felt apologetic toward him.

Here's what I thought of:

I felt bad for him.

I felt sorry for him.

But these sentences imply 'pity/empathy' which is not what I aiming for.

The sentence I came up with finally is:

I felt apologetic toward him.

But I've never heard anyone speak this way. Is this idiomatically correct? Or is there a better way of saying this?

  • If you could provide a context or a story, it would make it easier to find an appropriate phrase.
    – Xantix
    Jun 4, 2013 at 6:57
  • @Xantix I have updated my post with the content.
    – Soulz
    Jun 4, 2013 at 7:39
  • 2
    @ Soulz: I've just posted my answer, but now I read the question more carefully, I'm confused. If you don't feel sorry for the person, and you don't feel guilty either, I don't understand what [emotional?] reaction you're trying to convey. Jun 4, 2013 at 16:51

4 Answers 4


So, the situation is that both person A and person B have brought things to hand out, and both have spent hours on those things, not knowing the other was also doing it; and person B's handouts are clearly superior to person A's?

Then at this point where Person B sees person A realizing that A's efforts are completely overshadowed, B is feeling that it is unfortunate that A wasted all that time doing something that turns out fruitless. Either there is empathy involved (B feels bad because he knows that A feels bad) or there is not (B merely regrets the lost opportunity to have A be doing something useful, or B is happy to outshine A).

If there is some level of empathy involved (and since person B feels "apologetic", it seems that there must be some), then either "felt bad for" or "felt sorry for" would be appropriate and idiomatic.

  • 2
    Following a more careful reading of the question I now think this is the only answer that makes sense. More properly, I should say I don't think the question as framed makes sense anyway - OP says he doesn't feel either pity or guilt, but I can barely imagine any other reactions - certainly nothing so simple it could be succinctly expressed in English. Jun 4, 2013 at 16:56

Is this idiomatically correct?

Apologetic means "feeling or showing that you are sorry for doing something wrong or for causing a problem."

"Sorry," she said, with an apologetic smile.

They were very apologetic about the trouble they'd caused.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English has 846 sentences containing apologetic, but only six sentences containing feel apologetic. One of those sentences is taken from Man on a turquoise-colored cloud by Barbara Haas.

I feel apologetic for our warmth-our fire roaring in the grate, our sweaters, our cooking smells.

The Corpus of Web-Based Global English has 2504 sentences containing apologetic, and 26 sentences containing feel apologetic. 561 sentences containing apologetic are written in American English, and 575 in British English; for sentences containing feel apologetic, those numbers become 5 and 4 respectively.

  • So what is your opinion of the OP's suggested sentence? You've talked a lot about how "apologetic" is used, but haven't stated whether the you believe suggested usage is good, and if not, what an alternative might be. Jun 4, 2013 at 17:18

OP seems to understand the difference between feeling sorry for someone (empathising with their plight, which you didn't necessarily cause), and feeling apologetic towards them (where you feel responsible for their unhappy circumstance, and are perhaps minded to explicitly apologise for your involvement).

The reason people might think it's "not idiomatic" to say you felt apologetic toward (or BrE towards) someone is mainly because the sentiment itself isn't something we normally say (we're much more likely to either simply say we feel sorry for him, or guilty about [whatever we did to him].

Because we don't often say it, people aren't sure which preposition to use. Here are a few examples of felt apologetic to him/her, for example (there's no "rule of grammar" saying that's actually wrong).

And although again it's uncommon, there's also felt apologetic for him/her. But that has a somewhat different sense (it means you felt you should apologise to other people for what he/she is/did/does).

In almost all relevant contexts, it's probably obvious who we're feeling apologetic towards, so it's my opinion that people often don't bother trying to specify the person - partly because it's redundant, and partly because (like OP) they're unsure how to express it correctly (i.e. - with the "right" preposition).

  • I like your "guilty about" alternative. The O.P. might even say something like: Feelings of guilt washed over me. As a footnote, I know the O.P. said, "I want to avoid hinting at a sense of guilt or shame," but I think there's an almost idiomatic difference between admitting guilt (which somehow conveys fault), and feeling guilty (which is almost more like a sense of pity).
    – J.R.
    Jun 4, 2013 at 17:33
  • @J.R.: Even in the real world (or should I say the unreal world, of people's poorly-understood emotions), it's not uncommon for someone to feel guilty about another's suffering despite having done nothing to cause it. Or even to feel guilty about their own suffering when they're "objectively blameless". Particularly, that applies to victims of sexual crimes, where the emotional baggage often completely crowds out rational thought. Jun 4, 2013 at 17:56


*This section was rewritten based on comments and other answers.

John was apologetic.

In the previous sentence, I would understand that John said "I'm sorry" more than once, or at least wanted to.

John was an apologetic.

This uses a different meaning of "apologetic", which you don't want ("To Argue For or Defend a Position").

John was apologetic toward Mary.

This doesn't sound very idiomatic. It is understandable, but "John was apologetic to Mary" would be much more common.

John felt apologetic toward Mary.

This version sounds less idiomatic than the version using "was".


Both "I felt bad for him" and "I felt sorry for him" are very idiomatic and sound natural, but they do carry an amount of empathy.

But, empathy is a scale, so perhaps they are near enough.

Here are a few examples ordered according to decreasing empathy.

When I saw him, I just couldn't go on.

When I saw him, part of me died inside.

When I saw him, I couldn't stand it.

I felt terrible for him.

I feel for him.

I felt bad for him.

I felt sorry for him.

I felt uncomfortable when I heard his story.

It bothered me a little to see him like that.

His conditions bothered me somewhat.

I felt like he deserved an apology.

I thought "c'est la vie", and walked on by.

I didn't feel any sympathy for him.

May he starve to death, that annoying nuisance.

edited given context:

I would recommend one of the following:

I felt he was due an apology.

I felt sorry for him.

I felt he deserved an apology.

  • 1
    Apologetic, while it is used to discuss the logical defense of a belief or stance (e.g. Christian Apologetics), the word "apologetic" can absolutely still be used to mean "feeling or showing that you are sorry for doing something wrong or for causing a problem", as @kiamlaluno suggested. See his answer for more details on the use of this word. Jun 4, 2013 at 17:22
  • that's right. edited.
    – Xantix
    Jun 4, 2013 at 17:26
  • "Apologetic toward" can still be used to mean roughly "feeling or demonstrating sadness for a problem caused". e.g., "The waitress spilled my drink on me; as I dried my shirt, she was very apologetic toward me, showering me with statements of 'I am so sorry' and 'I am just so clumsy!'" Jun 4, 2013 at 17:30
  • The only case where "apologetic" has the meaning you stated above is when used within a very specific contexts, generally as a noun. e.g. Mormon Apologetics, Jewish Apologist, etc. If used as an adjective or adverb, I'd have a hard time coming up with an example using the above meaning, other than perhaps to describe a logical argument, e.g. "His apologetic treatise on Creationism", though I don't actually know whether this is proper. Jun 4, 2013 at 17:32
  • rewrote that section entirely, thanks for the feedback.
    – Xantix
    Jun 4, 2013 at 17:41

You must log in to answer this question.

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