How to Write an Apology (and Avoid Non-Apologies)

If you follow this apology template step by step, it will help you explain clearly what you did and understand how you affected someone else. Rather than having you fill in the blanks, it helps you find the words to say what you really mean.

Samantha Enslen, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #590

A picture of a woman who might need to write an apology letter.

OK, let’s admit it.

None of us really likes to apologize when we’ve done something wrong. 

In fact, the ways we avoid apologies are so common they’ve been given names. There’s the “nopology,” the “unpology,” and the “fauxpology,” just for starters. And the hashtag #sorrynotsorry has trended for years. It’s used to indicate a sardonic lack of shame, as in: “Binge-watching instead of cleaning house #sorrynotsorry.”

So how do you write a good apology and avoid one that rings false?

Let’s start by talking about what NOT to do.

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Types of Non-Apologies

  1. The “If” Apology
  2. The Passive Voice Apology
  3. The Reverse Apology
  4. The Florid Fauxpology

Let’s explore each non-apology a little further. 

The “If” Apology

First, avoid the “if” apology. It’s probably the most common non-apology. It can suggest oversensitivity, as in, “I’m sorry if you were offended.” It can imply that others weren’t smart enough to understand your intentions, as in, “I’m sorry if my remarks were taken out of context.” And it can suggest that a perceived wrong might not have even occurred, as in, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”

To avoid this, drop the “if” from your apologies and simply admit what you did. Instead of saying, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings,” try “I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings.”

The “that” makes all the difference.

The Passive Voice Apology

Next, avoid the passive voice apology. Sometimes it’s hard to admit when you’re wrong. When that happens, we can subconsciously slip into the passive voice to give ourselves an out.

“I’m sorry I lost your keys,” becomes “I’m sorry your keys got lost.” “I’m sorry I backed into your car,” becomes “I’m sorry your car got hit.” 

This phrasing lets you acknowledge an offense—while softening the fact that you’re the one who did it.

The most infamous version of the passive voice apology is “Mistakes were made.” These three words have been used by politicians from Nixon to Reagan to Clinton. They’ll surely be used again, anytime politicos want to acknowledge a mess-up without admitting it’s their fault.

To fix this non-apology, use the active voice. Say clearly what you did. For example, “I’m sorry the dishes didn’t get loaded,” becomes “I’m sorry I didn’t load the dishwasher.” “I’m sorry there’s dog pee on the floor,” becomes “I’m sorry I forgot to let the dog out.”


About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.