After learning that your aunt has died, your co-worker says, “My condolences.” What are condolences? Is it proper to say they are my condolences? When is it appropriate to say it?
“My condolences” is a minor sentence that you use to offer sympathy for someone else’s misfortune. You use this expression anytime you desire to comfort a grieving person. It is a formal and polite expression. When attending a funeral, it is respectful to say, “My condolences” to the grieving family.
Read on to discover more about “My condolences” and learn in which contexts you should use it.
What Does “My Condolences” Mean?
To say to someone, “My condolences,” means that you are sympathetic to their plight. There is a tiny difference between condolence and condolences. “My condolences” is a formal way of saying, “I am grieving with you.”
Condolence comes from the Latin condolences, the present participle of condolere. In Latin, condolere means “to grieve together.” To give a condolence, then, is to say, “I am grieving with you” (source).
There is a subtle difference between a “condolence” and “condolences.” We can use “condolence” to modify a noun or a verb, but this is not the case with “condolences.” For example, you might give someone a “condolence gift,” but you would never call it a “condolences gift” (source).
At one time, a “condolence” was a formal type of letter people wrote to express sympathy. One would write a condolence letter to a grieving person. Today, we call them “sympathy cards.” You use “condolences” only as an expression to communicate sympathy.
Where did “My condolences” come from? “My condolences” is a shortened form of the complete sentence: “Please accept my condolences.” Language tends to shorten over time. Eventually, the “please” and “accept” began to drop from this polite expression.
Though some still use the complete sentence, many today use the shortened version of “My condolences.” However, this minor sentence still conveys the entire meaning of expressing sympathy. When you say “My condolences,” you are communicating to the other person that you are grieving with them.
For more on the minor sentence “Accept my condolences,” read Is It Correct to Say, “Accept My Condolences”?
How Do You Use “My Condolences”?
We typically use “My condolences” as a formal way of expressing sympathy to someone. It is typically a generic form of expressing sympathy. It is also more formal, so it might not be appropriate in a setting where a personal expression is necessary.
Imagine that someone invites you to a birthday party, but you do not know the person whose birthday everyone is celebrating very well. You feel socially obligated to bring a gift but do not know what to give. In this instance, you try to pick a generic gift everybody would use.
Offering “My condolences” is like giving that generic gift. You do not know the person well enough to be more specific, but you feel socially obligated to offer something. In this case, you give something which most people will appreciate.
“My” is a first-person possessive pronoun that we use to indicate ownership or belonging (source):
- This is my ball.
- You are my friend.
In this context, “condolences” are coming from me to you. Thus, they are my sympathies given to you. But they are generic and not specific expressions of sympathy. So, when you want to say something but are unsure what to say, “My condolences” is a good option.
“Condolences” is the plural form of condolence. This is one of those odd phrases where the singular and plural are both technically correct. For example, you could say, “My condolence” or “My condolences,” and the meaning would be similar.
However, there are some differences between the phrases. For one, “My condolence” sounds even more formal and distant than “My condolences.” For this reason, most people prefer the plural form.
Because you can use “condolence” as a modifier, it will occasionally appear in a sentence which gives more specificity. Thus, “My condolences” is more generic and slightly less formal than “My condolence.”
When Can You Use “My Condolences”?
When you desire to convey generic sympathy, you can use “My condolences.” It is also a phrase that you can use comically or sarcastically.
Imagine that you are having a casual conversation with the cashier at the grocery store. She tells you that her week has been difficult because her beloved aunt just died. It would seem strange for you to express deep sympathies or specific emotional pain that you feel. So, in such a situation, “My condolences” would be appropriate.
If your relationship is formal or distant and yet you want to offer your sympathies, “My condolences” is an excellent, polite expression to use. People most often associate this expression with death, but in reality, you can use it for any particular loss or situation that causes grief.
Because of its formality, you may use the phrase for comedic or sarcastic effect. For example, your friend Jim, who loves M&M candy, accidentally spilled his bag on the ground. Though mourning the loss of candy might be valid, it does not reach the depth of a person in your family dying.
You can tease him by saying, “My condolences.” It is humorous because these words are typically formal for contexts of profound loss.
In What Context Can You Use “My Condolences”?
You can use “My condolences” in a formal or informal context. For example, using this phrase to convey your sympathies to co-workers, superiors, or others where generic sympathy is acceptable.
Imagine that your boss has lost a family member to cancer. You genuinely appreciate your boss and desire to convey sympathy. You also have lost a beloved family member to cancer, so you especially feel this grief.
In the above scenario, the formality of your relationship would preclude you from telling your own story. It would be appropriate in this context to merely use the more generic and distant “My condolences.”
Before you use it, consider the depth of the relationship between the person lost and the person grieving. If you have a close friend whose mother died, saying “My condolences” would likely not be appropriate or sufficient.
But if he lost a second cousin who lives four states away, and it is one he hasn’t seen for over a decade, “My condolences” might be an appropriate expression.
If you are on the receiving end of “My condolences,” it is reasonable to respond with a simple “Thank you.” Try not to take offense even if someone in a close relationship with you uses it.
The reality is that people express grief in different ways. The saying might feel cold and too formal, but it is possible that the other person simply does not know what to say.
Whether you say this expression or someone says it to you, the intention is to convey sympathy. It is an attempt to share in the grief of another person. As such, it will rarely offend.
Using “My Condolences” in a Full Sentence
“My condolences” is a minor sentence that can stand alone. But you can also add more specificity to the sentence or restore its fuller form.
The complete sentence originally appeared as “Accept my condolences.” However, because that sentence sounds like a demand, speakers frequently added the polite expression “please”: “Please, accept my condolences.”
You can add more specifics to the sentence as well. For example, you may want to add what the condolences are about.
- My condolences on the loss of your grandmother.
- You have my condolences.
- When Queen Elizabeth died, I offered my condolences.
- My condolences for your team’s loss in the Super Bowl.
- I gave my condolences to the family.
When Not to Use “My Condolences”
Because it is more formal and generic, “My condolences” would not be appropriate if you need to use a more profound emotional expression.
“My condolences” is a little like a cashier saying “Thank you” at the end of a transaction. It closes out the conversation, but not in a rude way. Because of this, it would be an inappropriate expression if the situation requires the use of a deeper emotional expression.
For example, a spouse should never tell their partner, “My condolences.” You are relationally obligated to walk through a situation with your spouse. In these instances, it is more appropriate to say something like, “I am so sorry that Grandma has died. My heart hurts with you.”
The appropriateness of saying “My condolences” to someone is proportional to the depth of your relationship with the affected person and the impact they feel from the loss.
If an intimate friend loses a distant relative, then “My condolences” would be appropriate. But it would likely be inappropriate if that friend loses a close relative.
The same is true for a pastor or other religious leader. If a congregation member said that her distant cousin had passed away, expressing “my condolences” would be appropriate. But if your congregant lost a spouse, “My condolences” would be insufficient comfort and care given.
If you need to reflect deeper emotion, consider using a more personal phrase. Below are a few examples that may be better choices for you.
What Can You Use Instead of “My Condolences”?
Since “My condolences” expresses sorrow or sympathy, there are many alternative ways to express your shared grief.
Some alternatives include the following sentences. However, remember that the sentence you choose must reflect the appropriate level of emotion proportional to your relationship depth with the person suffering loss. Stepping into someone else’s grief is not always appropriate if you are outside a person’s closest family and friends.
- You are in my thoughts and prayers.
- I am so sorry for your loss.
- Words cannot express how sad we are to hear this news.
- You have our deepest sympathies.
- Our hearts are with you during this time.
- I am here for you; let me know how I can help.
- I am praying for peace and comfort at this time.
- May God’s presence be with you in this season.
- We are saddened by your loss.
Some of these examples add a personal or religious touch to an expression of sympathy. Others are formal expressions similar to “My condolences.” The more specifically you express your sympathy and/or prayers for the person, the closer you are relationally to feel that same grief.
Polite Expressions as Minor Sentences
A sentence is made of words organized to begin with a capitalized word and end with a period. A full sentence will have both a subject and a predicate. A complete sentence will also have a verb (source).
“My condolences” is not technically a complete sentence but functions as one. Therefore, this is known as a minor sentence. A minor sentence is an incomplete sentence whose intonation masquerades as a full sentence (source).
There are many aphorisms and pithy statements in English that are minor sentences. Here are a few examples:
- Like father, like son.
- No pain, no gain.
- First come, first served.
- Fair and square.
- The more, the merrier.
- Slow and steady.
These are not complete sentences but function as one because context supplies the missing verb or subject. The phrase is so common that a complete sentence is not required to ascertain the meaning.
Many polite expressions are minor sentences. A polite expression is a phrase or sentence that helps a speaker sound polite or diplomatic. These can be helpful for non-native speakers to learn. Here is a table of minor expressions with their full sentence and meaning:
|Minor Sentence||Complete Sentence|
|My condolences||Please, accept my condolences.|
|Apologies||Please, accept my apologies.|
|Well Wishes||I wish you well.|
|Well Said||What you said was well stated.|
|Excuse me||Would you please excuse me?|
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
To read more about some of these polite expressions as minor sentences, consider these articles: Is It Correct to Say “Apologies”?; Is It Correct to Say “Well Wishes”?; Is It Correct to Say “Well Said”?
“My condolences” is a polite expression in the form of a minor sentence. You may use it to express sympathy to someone experiencing loss. It is the shorter form of saying, “Please, accept my condolences.”
As a generic and somewhat formal expression, it is appropriate in many situations but likely not suitable when expressing more emotional depth.