The art of apologizing – General Training Writing Task 1

Sorry seems to be the hardest thing to say sometimes, but it doesn’t have to be – especially on the IELTS General Training test.

In this blog post, we’ll consider two apology tasks (one personal and one more formal), discuss how to approach each and then examine sample responses.

Sample tasks

  1. You missed an important dinner meeting at work.
    Write a letter to your manager.

    In the letter:
  • Apologize for not going
  • Explain why you were not there
  • Say how you will make up for it
  1. You said you would attend your best friend’s birthday party but you did not go.
    Write a letter to your friend.

    In the letter:
  • Apologize for not going
  • Explain why you were not there
  • Say how you will make up for it

What’s the same? 

Both letters ask you to admit a wrong, give a reasonable explanation for what happened and make amends.

What’s different?

What’s at stake in the first one is your job and your working relationship with you colleagues. You may find yourself without a paycheck if you don’t address this error.

The second is a personal situation. You have offended someone whose friendship you value. If you don’t do something about this, your relationship could be damaged.

What should you write about in these two letters?

Apologizing is usually a serious topic, so joking around or talking about other matters in the letter isn’t appropriate. Get right to the point – even in the personal letter.

Another thing to avoid is going off on an angry tangent about what caused you to miss the party or meeting. You aren’t rallying the rangers to help you with an injustice here. This is a reconciliation.

If you read the bullet points in each task, your job is simply to:

  1. admit that something you did has disappointed, inconvenienced or offended another or others.
  2. take responsibility and explain how it happened.
  3. make amends.

How will the tone of these letters be different?

The tone is determined by your relationship with the person you are writing to and the seriousness of the topic.

The words, phrases and content of business or formal letters need to be very respectful. Personal letters can use language that reads more like a conversation with a friend.

For apology letters specifically, here are some common informal and formal phrases that you can use:

Formal or Business like

Informal or Personal

I am very sorry that I was not able to come.

I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to make it.

Please accept my sincerest apology.

Please accept my apology.

I wish to sincerely apologize for missing the meeting.

I ‘m sorry I missed your party.

I regret that I was not in attendance.

I regret that I couldn’t come.

Sample letters and analysis

Dear Mr. Johnson,

I am writing to apologize for not attending the team building dinner last night. I understand that these events are valuable but, unfortunately, I was held up and could not get there on time. 

My absence was a result of an overextended meeting with John Powers, the CEO. Mr. Powers called an emergency problem solving conference about the Waterford campaign that carried over late into the evening. He insisted on no interruptions during our discussions so phones were silenced. By the time I was able to message you, it was after eleven o’clock and our team dinner meeting had completed.

I have followed up with everyone to explain why I was not there. In addition, I have reserved a table in the cafeteria at lunch for those who can join and share their take away from the team building exercises with me today. If there is anything else I need to know or do, please let me know.

Once again, I sincerely regret missing the activities and dinner and hope you understand the unavoidable circumstances that led to my absence.

Yours truly,

Marcus Prendergast

Dear Pam,

I’m so sorry that I missed your birthday party yesterday. I know a lot of planning went into the surprise but something unavoidable kept me from being there.

Unfortunately, I got a call from my son’s school telling me that he’d been injured at his out of town football tournament and I had to drive to Kingston to get him. It turns out that it was just some bruising but the drive and the four-hour wait in the emergency department made it impossible to make it back in time for the celebrations.

With the party being a surprise, I couldn’t message you when I left and I lost cellular service once I got out of the city limits.

I trust you got the card and flowers I sent last night and I’d love to take you out for lunch next week to hear all about the fun you had. 

I’m really regretting that I couldn’t be there to spend your 50th with you. Hope you’ll forgive me.

Sincerely,

Joan

Notice how the two letters begin and end differently. The title Mr. is used to address the recipient of the business letter and it is signed using a first and last name. The formality is dropped in the personal letter where first name basis is more appropriate in both sections.

The different tones are also evident in the words used to sign off. Sincerely is a safe way to end an apology letter to a friend and Yours truly is appropriate for this situation at work.

In addition, a more personal or conversational tone is created by using contractions (couldn’t, he’d, I’d). Also, phrases like I’m really regretting that I couldn’t be there and Hope you’ll forgive me are better in a note to a friend whereas I sincerely regret missing the activities and hope you understand the circumstances that led to my absence sound better when written to your boss.

Other than that, the letters have the same structure, the paragraphs are relatively short compared to an essay and the entire length is between 150 and 200 words. Each also covers the required bullet points from the task prompt in a way that is appropriate to the situation.

You should have a better understanding about how to express your regrets in a letter now with more need to celebrate about than apologize for your score.

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