• Characterized by heartfelt shame or guilt for one’s transgressions, often evidenced by words or actions of apology or reconciliation


“Say you’re sorry.”

Almost all of us can remember a time when our mothers single-handedly forced us to do the one thing that seemed diametrically opposed to our being: Apologize. When we were kids, we couldn’t grasp the idea that we might have been wrong, and that we, the perfect children that we were, should actually be contrite for what we’d done.

Even as adults, we sometimes fail to see our wrongdoings, and if we do, we can be too prideful to ask for forgiveness. The million-dollar question that always pops up is, “How can I be sorry when I’m really not?” It’s never too late to get a lesson on being truly contrite.

Being contrite doesn’t mean forcing yourself to say sorry. Rather, it’s feeling incredibly remorseful for what you have done and, in many cases, wishing to convey that sorrow to the one you have wronged. No one can make you or cause you to feel contrite: It’s a deep, personal understanding of your own guilt often brought on by seeing the consequences of your actions or feeling sympathy for the person who you have pained. When we are contrite we comprehend the weight of our actions and the negative effects that they have had; we generally feel unsettled or ashamed over our wrongs whether or not we are encouraged to apologize.

Although we might envision a person with tearful eyes or his or her head hung low when we think of contrite, and it sometimes does accompany contrition, this emotion is often unseen, manifesting itself in the thoughts of one who is guilty. If we are truly sorry, our feelings won’t end there, though. A contrite, or penitent, person will seek out forgiveness and work towards redemption in the eyes of the one he or she has hurt. A teenage boy who is contrite for yelling at his father in a fit of rage will most likely take active steps to not only apologize, but also prove to his father that he will never act in the same way again, as long as he is truly regretful.

In some cases, people will cause themselves to look contrite and give “lip service” to another without truly feeling sorry. Unfortunately, some feel ashamed at being caught in their misdeeds, or are somehow pushed to say sorry for the sake of cooperation or reconciliation, instead of feeling heartfelt sorrow. Therefore, sincerity, rather than making a gesture of atonement, is the most important attribute that must be present in one who is contrite; yes, you must really mean it! Another virtue that must take root is humility; it means simply submitting to the fact that you were wrong and, maybe, the other person was right, even if it hurts your pride. Of course, confronting the person you’ve hurt takes considerable humility – and mental resolve – as well! However, when penance is accepted and forgiveness is given, the result can be pretty spectacular: a renewed friendship, or a deepened relationship can grow from its seeds. For many of us, it takes time and effort to exhibit our true repentance, especially because it is often difficult to prove our inner sorrow. Whether you’re 8 or 80 years old, it’s always going to be hard to accept your failures, but, with practice, we can all learn to show remorse and reap the benefits of being contrite.

Example: Tracy was so contrite that she wrote me a long letter of apology.

Example: His contrite speech moved Leah to forgive him for forgetting their anniversary.


The word contrite comes to us from the Latin contritus, which is from the infinitive conterere, meaning “to grind, crush, or rub together.” It can refer to a physical or emotional “wearing down” or “bruising” from excessive pressure, or pressure over a long period of time. The Latin roots give us a picture of one who is pummeled by the weight of their transgressions, dealing with the emotional (and sometimes psychosomatic) pain that comes from being guilt-ridden and repentant. Contrite first entered the English language in the early 14th century.

Derivative Words

Contritely: This adverb describes an action or state that is characterized by repentance and sorrow.

Example: Sue hung her head contritely as she walked over to apologize to Mrs. Jenson.

Contriteness: This noun refers to the idea or emotion of remorse or shame.

Example: The lack of contriteness shown by the criminal was concerning to all.

Contrition: This noun refers to the act of penance or admitting to one’s sins.

Example: During his long overdue show of contrition, he must have said sorry thirty times.

Overcontrite: This verb describes a person who is overly apologetic for something.

Example: The mayor brought up his past failures and apologized for them so much that the citizens thought him to be a bit overcontrite,

Overcontritely: This adverb describes an act that is completed in a way that is excessively repentant.

Example: Patrice blubbered overcontritely for accidently falling asleep at the concert.

Overcontriteness: This noun refers to the idea or state of being exceedingly remorseful.

Example: Dad’s overcontriteness over the dead fly was embarrassing to say the least.

Uncontrite: This adjective describes one who fails or refuses to recognize his or her sin and apologize for it.

Example: That her husband was still uncontrite for his affair left Georgia sick with regret.

In Literature

From Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:

I was not really angry: I felt for him all the time, and longed to be reconciled; but I determined he should make the first advances, or at least show some signs of an humble and contrite spirit, first; for, if I began, it would only minister to his self-conceit, increase his arrogance, and quite destroy the lesson I wanted to give him.

Within her diaries, the main character, Mrs. Helen Graham, finds that even though she is disappointed with her husband’s debauchery, she still hopes for the day that he will turn from his ways and renew a relationship with her. Contrite is used to describe how remorseful and apologetic Mrs. Graham sincerely hopes her husband will become if she continues to hold back and waits for him to admit his wrongs. Though Helen desires reconciliation, she really wants her husband to be the one who makes the first move; after all, it was he that damaged their relationship.


In the Roman Catholic Church, the contrite at heart are encouraged to make an act of contrition, or penance, for their sins. This act is most often a specific prayer that is said during the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confession, where a priest is said to absolve the churchgoer of his or her sins. The prayer itself includes a confession of guilt to God and asks for divine forgiveness.


  • Say sorry for your blight; that’s being contrite.

  • If you hurt someone, be polite and be contrite.

  • Contrite: Confess you weren’t right.


Confession, Apology, Sin

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of contrite. Did you use contrite in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.