What is the difference between すみません and すみませんでした (or すまない and すまなかった)?

If it is what the 「でした」 suggests and すみませんでした is the past form and used to apologize for things done in the past, then what I don't understand is that even mistakes that I did just now is already in the past (I have already done it!). Then すみませんでした should be the correct one to use and すみません should be used only when you are trying to apologize for something that you will do in the future. But that doesn't seem the way it is used. Can anyone please explain the nuance difference?

Edit: Here is the thing that is bothering me:
Anime: キルラキル

(After complementing her clothes 鮮血{せんけつ} about how good it feels, 鮮血 starts to cry)

So he was sorry about an incident (crying) which happened in immediate past (and he was still crying when he said that), but he didn't use すみません. What would be the difference in meaning if he said すみません? Or is it totally inappropriate in this context?

2 Answers 2


What bothers you is the ambiguity of ~た form which could indicate both past and perfect. And the worse thing is you have no way to distinguish them in form, in this case.

What you did: すみませんでした


What you have done: すみませんでした (~ present perfect) or すみません (~ present)


Now or future: すみません


  • I think you are right. That maybe the thing that was bothering me. Just to clarify, present perfect is used for something that happened at an unspecified time before now (maybe just before now). Saying "I have completed it" just after completion is fine. Does that mean in situations like this we can use すみません and すみませんでした interchangeably?
    – Steel
    Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 17:08
  • I didn't see the actual cut, but I assume he's apologizing (she's blaming) for soaking her clothes with his tear, thus both すまない and すまなかった are appropriate here. If you're convinced that he's blamed for crying, then I don't think すまなかった is valid in this situation. Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 18:27

You're largely correct, both of them refer to situations in the past, however, すみません has has the tendency of being used for immediate apologies (stepping on someone's foot). すみませんでした is more along the lines of, "Sorry about the other day."

  • 2
    Another use for すみません that's not really in the past, could be interrupting someone or trying to get their attention.
    – clinch
    Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 22:35

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