American English Refusals

Refusals of Requests

Excuses are commonly given as part of American refusals. Americans typically start with expressing a positive opinion or feeling about the requests or requester (or pause fillers uhh/well/oh/uhm when talking to a higher-status person), then express regret (I'm sorry), and finally give an excuse, especially when talking to someone of higher or lower status than themselves (status unequals). With status equals, Americans generally give an expression of regret or apology, then give an excuse.

Refusals of Invitations

Americans tend to begin with expressions like "Well," "Thank you," "I'd love to go," then use an expression of regret/apology followed by an excuse to speakers of either higher, lower, or equal status. Expressions of regret and gratitude are used frequently in declining invitations.

Refusal of Offers

When a cleaning woman offers to pay for a broken base, Americans might say, "Don't worry" or "Never mind" and reinforce it with expressions like "I know it was an accident," letting the interlocutor off the hook.

Refusal of Suggestions

Offering an alternative to be pursued by the refuser or making suggestions for the recipient of the refusal to carry out are common strategies. In few cases, expressions of gratitude and attempts to dissuade are offered as well.

In general, native speakers of American English tend to be sensitive to status equals versus status unequals (either higher or lower). They talk to people of higher or lower status than themselves in a similar way, but they speak to status equals in a different way than status unequals. For instance, they tend to say "Thank you" at the end of their refusal to a friend (a status equal) who makes an invitation, but not with others of unequal status.

Examples of American Refusals

Refusing a friend's birthday invitation:

Oh, I feel bad about this. I'm really sorry. I can't.

Saturday evening? Oh, goodness, I have a date Saturday evening.

Refusing a boss' invitation to a farewell party:

I can't attend on Saturday evening. I apologize.

Refusing a boss' request to stay at work late:

Sorry, I have plans. I would but I have plans. I can't do it today.

I had a prior commitment and since you just told me now, and my shift usually ends at seven, I probably can't stay late this evening.

I'd really like to. Really. But, you know I can't. I've got a lot of stuff I've got to do. Perhaps we can do it another time? But tonight's a bad time for me. I'm really sorry.

I can't do it. I've got, uh, I've got some things I need to take care of at home. If, uh, if it's any consolation, I can come in early tomorrow. But I can't do it tonight.

Refusing to lend a classmate notes:

I just don't feel comfortable giving you my notes because I worked so hard and it doesn't seem that you've done that much.

Above passages taken from (Felix-Brasdefer, 2002)


American Graduate Students' Rejection of Academic Advisors' Suggestions

Students' rejection of their advisers' suggestions in academic advising sessions are out-of-status acts which require the use of status preserving strategies. Students, as Refusers, need to take their own status and the face-threatening nature of refusal into consideration and employ strategies to maintain the status balance.

"Downgraders" are sometimes used to soften the rejection in order to maintain status relations (e.g., agreement before the rejection (that sounds good but I don't really want...), downtoner (probably), tentativeness (thinking/I'm not really sure), non-present tense as a play-down (I've been thinking)).

Yeah, but, the books are, probably the books are in German.
I've been thinking about Korean. Thinking about East Asian languages, cultures as a minor, I'm really not sure how deep my commitment is to that language.

On the other hand, "upgraders" heighten non-congruence that is already inherent in the rejection (e.g., Yeah but, but, in fact, I prefer). Although yeah but and but may be mitigated by other parts of the utterance, they alert the interlocutor to the fact that a rejection is about to occur and highlight the possibility of refusal. This intensifies the impact of rejection and tends to lead to advisors' disapproval of the rejection.

Questions or embedded questions are sometimes used. Questions are safe in that they do not sound like explicit rejections, yet may be ambiguous in that they could either be interpreted as a refusal or could be seen as not convincing enough to constitute a refusal:

Is it possible not to take it?
I was wondering if I could take your class Mondays and Wednesdays.

Giving explanation is probably the most common strategy for rejection used by American graduate students. The content should be appropriate and relatively brief. Giving an alternative tends to be the second most commonly used strategy. This strategy depends on specific content and the appropriate form for mitigating the threatening nature of refusals. Explanations and alternatives are used as part of refusals, often with downgraders.

[ Research notes on the section above... ]

Above passages taken from (Bardovi-Harlig & Hartford, 1991)



Bardovi-Harlig, K. & Hartford, B. (1991). Saying "no" in English: Native and nonnative rejections. In L. Bouton and Y. Kachru (Eds.), Pragmatics and Language Learning, Vol. 2 (pp. 41-57). Urbana, IL: University of Illionois.

Félix-Brasdefer, C. (2002). Refusals in Spanish and English: A cross-cultural study of politeness strategies among speakers of Mexican Spanish, American English, and American learners of Spanish as a foreign language. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota, Minnesota.


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