‘Sorry to Hear That’: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on March 22, 2023

Did you hear someone say, ‘sorry to hear that,’ and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

In short:

  • ‘Sorry to hear that’ is a way to extend condolences to another person.

For example, if someone told you that they have a cold, you could respond with:

“I’m ‘sorry to hear that’” or “I’m ‘sorry to hear that’ you’re sick.”

What Does 'Sorry to Hear That' Mean?

‘Sorry to hear that’ is a phrase that implies that the speaker is extending their condolences to the person they are talking to or to convey empathy in the face of something unfortunate or regrettable they have just been told.

There are two primary ways that this phrase can be used.

In the first case, let’s say that you have heard that your friend’s dog has been ill. The next time you talk to them, you might say, “I’m ‘sorry to hear that’ your dog is sick.”

In the second case, ‘I’m sorry to hear that’ can be used in response to the unfortunate news that someone is sharing with you at the moment. If your friend says to you, “my dog has been really sick the last few days,” you can reply, “I’m ‘sorry to hear that.’”

Where Does 'Sorry to Hear That' Come From?

Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that 'sorry to hear that' has been in use as a phrase since before the 1800s. During the 19th century it was most popularly used during the 1860s. It has had an increase in usage since the turn of the 21st century.

One example of the usage of this phrase in the early 1800s comes from Cobbet’s Parliamentary History of England, Volume IV:

“The security of the Protestant Religion, and the safety of the king’s person, are things of so great weight, that we should not have stayed so long as this day, to take into consideration the Exclusion of the duke. I am sorry to hear of the king’s giving us expedients to secure the Protestant Religion: I am sorry to hear that language. This is not to be used as an English parliament, but French, to be told in the king’s Speech what we are to do, and what not.”

Here’s another example from 1819 in a publication entitled The Guardian, or Youth’s Religious Instructor:

“O how I rejoiced, to think that you were going to carry the glad tidings of salvation to a people who had never heard of the dear Saviour. I do hope and pray, that the Lord will bless your labours among them, as he has here. We were very lonesome when you left us, especially at our prayer meeting; but I hope our hearts were united in love. I was very sorry to hear that you were sick; but it rejoiced me to hear that you were recovering.”

Finally, let’s look at one more example of the use of ‘sorry to hear that’ during the early 19th century, in a publication called The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and its Dependencies from 1818:

"You will be sorry to hear that my unfortunate brother James, has fallen into the hands of the Peishwah, who has sent him and a Mr. Hunter also of the cavalry, to a fort in the south Concan. I was informed at first that both the young men had been murdered! But happily, I was relieved from my sorrows soon afterwards, by hearing and ascertaining that they were only prisoners.”

Examples of 'Sorry to Hear That' In Sentences

How would 'sorry to hear that' be used in a sentence?

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • “I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t get into your dream school. I know it’s hard right now, but you will get into a great college and be able to pursue the field you love. You know I’m always rooting for you!”
  • “I’m sorry to hear that you’re frustrated right now. Please bear with me, and we should be done here in just a few minutes.”
  • “Jonathan told me about your mother’s diagnosis. I was truly sorry to hear that. All of my prayers are with you and your family right now.”
  • “She was sorry to hear that Marjorie wouldn’t be able to attend. She was so looking forward to talking to her.”
  • “I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t have a good holiday.”
  • “I’m sorry to hear that you think I’m being naive, but if I’m being honest, it doesn’t seem like you know what you’re talking about.”

How to Respond to 'Sorry to Hear That'

  • Person A: “I’ve had the most terrible morning– I spilled coffee on my new shirt, got stuck in traffic, and my boss told me that I’ll have to work extra hours this week!”

Person B: “Wow, that really does sound like an awful morning. I’m so sorry to hear that.”

  • Person A: “I am absolutely fed up with my neighbors. They play loud music through the middle of the night, leave trash on their lawn, and keep their dogs tied up outside during the hottest days of the summer.”

Person B: “Geez, I’m sorry to hear that! I don’t think I would be able to stand that either.”

Other Ways to Say 'Sorry to Hear That'

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'sorry to hear that'?

Sometimes, you’ll want to use the phrase ‘sorry to hear that’ when someone tells you about a tragedy or difficult time they are dealing with. In these types of instances, you might choose one of these other options as they can come off as more empathetic:

  • You’re in my thoughts and prayers
  • I’m here for you if you need anything
  • I wish you strength in this difficult time
  • I’m here for you if you need to talk
  • I’m here for you if you ever need anything
  • Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help
  • You’re not alone in this
  • I’m sorry to hear such terrible news
  • I can’t imagine how much you’re hurting right now

On the other hand, you might also feel compelled to say ‘sorry to hear that’ when someone is describing a much more mundane problem.

In these cases, here are some other options you can use:

  • That’s too bad
  • That’s a shame
  • That’s a bummer
  • That’s a pity
  • I’m sorry you’re having a rough time
  • That sucks

It’s important to consider the context when deciding how to use one of these alternatives to ‘sorry to hear that.’ For example, if someone tells you that their mother died, it would be seen as insensitive to say, ‘that’s a bummer’ or ‘that sucks.’ However, it would be completely appropriate to say, ‘you’re in my thoughts and prayers’ and ‘I’m here if you need to talk.’

On the other hand, if someone tells you that they got a flat tire in the morning, it would be odd to say, ‘I wish you strength in this difficult time’ or “you’re not alone in this.’ Instead, it would be much more appropriate to say something like ‘that’s a shame’ or ‘that’s too bad.’

Final Thoughts About 'Sorry to Hear That'

‘Sorry to hear that’ is a way to extend condolences to another individual when you know they are going through a hardship or when they’ve expressed something unfortunate. For example, if someone told you that they aren’t feeling well, you could respond with “I’m ‘sorry to hear that’” or “I’m ‘sorry to hear that’ you’ve been feeling sick.”

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, adages, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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