A colleague of mine sent her thesis to me to give comments on it. I really liked the work. So I replied saying it was an interesting study and nice attempt. Wished her all the best.

I later realised that the word 'nice attempt' is used sarcastically to say that you could have done better. I don't want ruin the relationship with this colleague.

She replied to my mail saying that " what is there in the thesis is what it is, imperfectly in the context of pandemic. Though I enjoyed working in it"

So I thought of replying to her saying that " I read your thesis and I don't have any suggestions as I have no work experience in the field. I understand the challenges that the pandemic would have posed for you. It is from people like you I learn to keep myself focused and motivated in my work."

I don't want to write saying that I used the word "nice attempt" without realizing its meaning as I don't want to look stupid.

I don't know if it would be appropriate to explain in person or through mail.

How can I communicate about the misunderstanding and bad writing so that it's clear it wasn't intended to be sarcastic?

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    Agreed with TinkeringBell's. You "don't want to look stupid". But you're trying to make amends for making someone feel stupid. And that was stupid of you. But luckily, you're not alone. We all do stupid things all the time (I certainly do; that's why I hang out on Interpersonal Skills Stack Exchange). But owning stupidity negates stupidity and shows you to be a humble person who cares about others'feelings more than looking smart.
    – Euchris
    Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 13:25
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    Is your colleague a native speaker? Does she know you're not? Because "nice attempt" is not something a native speaker would say. If you wanted to sarcastically comment on the quality of her work you'd say "nice try" instead. So to me it would be immediately obvious that it's probably just your wording that was awkward. That makes me think her English is also not perfect so you really don't risk making yourself look stupid by pointing out that this was just a communication problem.
    – Peter
    Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 13:30
  • @ Euchris Thank you Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 13:55
  • @Peter No she is not a native speaker. Thank you Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 13:55

2 Answers 2


How to apologize after unwanted sarcastic comment while giving feedback?

You can't, at least not in the way you describe as wanting to do this in your question, or with the message you propose sending. Whatever that message is, it's not meeting the minimum requirements for an apology as desribed on this wikihow page:

A good apology will communicate three things: regret, responsibility, and remedy.

A good apology takes responsibility, so it requires you take responsibility for the fact that you did not know the meaning of the words 'nice attempt'. If you want to communicate that you made a mistake in using these words, you're going to have to admit that you made a mistake in using these words.

The message you're thinking of sending will not communicate that you made a mistake. If I would get such a message, at best I might see it as nothing but a formality, someone thinking I need encouragement to do better after my 'nice attempt'.

Your last sentence though would make me think you're just trying to add insult to injury: first you sarcastically bash a thesis, then you say this person is your inspiration? That's too much like more sarcasm at this point, the difference between the two is just too stark to take that second message seriously, let alone see it as an attempt at reconciliation.

How can I communicate about the misunderstanding and bad writing so that it's clear it wasn't intended to be sarcastic?

If you want to be clear that this was a misunderstanding, you're going to have to directly admit that there was a misunderstanding in the first place. Admit and explicitly state that you did not know 'nice attempt' has a sarcastic meaning, and that you weren't using the expression sarcastically. Only after that, you could possibly go on to explain that you really liked the thesis if you want to, without being seen as just adding more sarcasm to the pile.

English is my second language. If I write something in English, and the word has a different meaning, people either correct me, or I correct myself if I notice people are starting to misunderstand me. It works best to admit that you're just using words without having been aware of their 'second', less literal, meaning. After that, you can continue the conversation with the knowledge that now, both sides know what is being talked about.

The only stupid thing would be to not own up to this mistake. No one has ever openly accused me of being stupid for getting a word wrong, so don't fret over that.

  • @ Tinkeringbell Thank you. Should I see her in person and explain or should I explain myself in mail? It has already been more than a week Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 13:54
  • @PriyadarshiniThirunavukkarasu As I remember, it was explained to you that that exact question is off-topic for this site: we don't make those choices for you. So don't try to circumvent that by asking the same question in comments.
    – Tinkeringbell
    Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 14:47
  • @Tinkeringbell Why is that off-topic? Asking whether it is better to convey this in person or per mail is akin to asking "how do I say this?" not "what do I do?".
    – Peter
    Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 10:32
  • @Peter the original question was, I quote: "Shall I write a mail explaining it to her it was a mistake or shall I explain to her in person?", the comment is also asking "Should I". So it's asking "What should I do", which has it's own off-topic close reason on the site. Asking whether X or Y is the better way for delivering a specific message is most likely primarily opinion based, at least for this site. At that point you'd almost have to turn it into an academic-research question for it to work... drop by Interpersonal Skills Chat if you like to discuss this further, it's a bit easier than comments :)
    – Tinkeringbell
    Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 10:55
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    Some things I say to people about apologies: don't explain and don't assign responsibility to others. An apology is just about admitting what you did wrong and accepting accountability. It's not "I'm sorry for you" or saying who was at fault, except for you. Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 15:10

PS: In my previous email I said 'nice attempt' and later realised that might be interpreted sarcastically. Just to be sure: It wasn't."

That way you didn't really give it any weight, but still addressed the matter.
I find myself in similar occassions more than I'd like, but that approach works fine for me.

If they did read it sarcastically, they now know it wasnt the intention, before it turns into something big (or a lot of small things which might turn into the straw that breaks the camel's back).

If they didn't, you've still shown that you thought about the interaction, giving it worth, and that you care that they don't feel bad unnecessarily.

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