English has a variety of options for when we want to express contrition or remorse. We can say we’re sorry, we apologise, we regret something. We can emphasise it by saying ‘I’m so/very/really/truly/awfully sorry’, and so on. Or we can just say ‘Apologies’.
Convention dictates in part how this and other ritualised speech acts take place. We generally say ‘Congratulations’ or ‘Congrats’, though ‘I congratulate you’ might begin a longer, formal utterance. With its jocular tone, ‘Greetings’ is fairly common in everyday encounters with friends or family, or in comic situations like ‘Greetings, Earthling’; it works less well when we meet someone for the first time. We say ‘Thank you’ or ‘I appreciate it’ rather than ‘Gratitude’ or ‘Appreciation’, as if these more personal expressions warrant mention of whoever is speaking or being addressed.
‘Apologies’ is an interesting case. It can be perfectly sincere, albeit often quite a formal way of acknowledging a mistake. At other times it strikes me as an offhand approach for speakers to appease injured parties without actually saying sorry. Something like: ‘Apologies are taking place. Look closely and you might spot them.’
Being sorry is about far more than just saying the words, of course. Authentic remorse tends to be effectively communicated so long as sincere effort is made through tone, gesture, penitent behaviour and so on. But the words, as an explicit admission of wrongdoing or shortcoming, can be an important part of reconciliation. Not counting instances of extreme sarcasm.
Because it omits the subject, ‘Apologies’ is somewhat disembodied and abstract, a bit like saying ‘Mistakes were made’ instead of ‘I/We made a mistake.’ It can be personalised, for example as ‘My (sincere) apologies’, but this feels formal – at least to me – whereas ‘I’m sorry’ does not. Omission of the subject is why the passive voice is not best suited to apologising: it is, as Lane Greene writes at Johnson,
the most straightforward way, syntactically speaking, for a coach, boss or bureaucrat to seem to be admitting something went wrong while not putting themselves, or any other human, on the line.
A Yahoo! Answers user named CeltAngel made an interesting distinction between ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Apologies’:
Where I grew up you said “I’m sorry” when you were genuinely sorry for what you did – such as knocking into someone (or anything more severe). When you really weren’t sorry, or were sorry the other person reacted to your action in the way they did, you would tender “apologies”. It’s kind of a snarky distinction, but it was a very stuffy, polite society I grew up in. Semantically speaking, there is really no difference.
She’s right that there’s no semantic difference, or not much anyway, but there is a pragmatic one. Sometimes sorry really does seem to be the hardest word. (Sorry, Elton.)
What’s your take on these ways of apologising – is ‘Apologies’ more offhand or distant than ‘I’m sorry’, or does it depend mostly on how you say it? What makes them distinct?Email this Post