When do you use “regrettable” versus “regretful” and “regrettably” versus “regretfully”?
An excellent question, srsly_yes, and one whose answer we must regretfully venture into the sleepy town of Silent Hill in order to find...
“Regrettable” versus “regretful”
Regrettable is an adjective that means “able to be regretted.” It describes the nature of an event or idea. One typically uses "regrettable" when one acknowledges that the event or idea is unfortunate but does not feel sorry for the fact that it occurred.
“Although your father’s murder was regrettable,” Claudia told Heather as she, Claudia, laid the dagger upon the altar, “it was also a necessary course of action to take in order to awaken God.”
Regretful is an adjective that means “full of regret.” It describes a specific person who feels sorry for the fact that an event or idea occurred.
“The only thing I know about Dahlia Gillespie is that she’s one of the leaders of that weird cult. I don’t know where she lives or how to find her,” Lisa said, her eyes regretful. “I’m sorry, Harry, I wish I could help you more.”
The key difference between these two words is how the regret applies to the nouns in question. In the first example, Claudia acknowledges that Heather’s father’s death—for which she, Claudia, is responsible— is unfortunate, although she does not feel sorry for it. In the second, Lisa is sorry that she doesn't know more about Dahlia (which is unfortunate, because Harry needs to know more about her) and therefore cannot help Harry.
“Regrettably” versus “regretfully”
Regrettably is an adverb derived from "regrettable" that means “deserving regret.” It describes the nature of an action. Like its adjective counterpart, one typically uses "regrettably" when one acknowledges that an action is unfortunate but does not feel sorry for the fact that the action occurred.
Dr. Kaufmann stepped into the basement doorway, blocking Travis’s view. “Mr. Grady, I appreciate your concern for the Gillespie girl, I really do, but regrettably, I must ask you to leave the hospital premises or else I’ll have to phone the security staff,” he said.
Regretfully is an adverb derived from "regretful" that means “with regret.” It describes the nature of an action that a specific person takes. As is the case with its adjective counterpart, one typically uses "regretfully" when one performs an action in response to an event or idea that one is sorry occurred.
“I’m sorry we treated you the way we did, Alex,” said Adam regretfully. “Your mother and I…we’ve always loved you, even if we haven’t always shown it as well as we should have.”
The key difference between these two particular words is whether the regret belongs to a general action or a specific person who is performing an action. In the first example, the regret lies in a general action--Dr. Kaufmann asking Travis to leave the hospital (an action for which Dr. Kaufmann himself is not sorry). In the second example, the regret lies in Adam, who is sorry for how he and his wife have treated their son Alex.
And now the end of the entry is regrettably here. Although I am as regretful as you are, I think we can all agree that leaving Silent Hill, with its dark secrets and nightmarish monsters, is a decision not in the least bit regrettable. Have a happy (and safe) Halloween!
North Carolina State University’s Online Writing Lab
Professor Paul Brians @ Washington State University