Apologies are being expressed – or are they?

Posted by on May 15, 2012

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?

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Comments (18)
  • Hi Stan:
    First of all, I’m not sorry you brought this subject up. I AM sorry more people aren’t aware of the multitude of forms and the inferences to be made from prosodic clues, as you pointed out. One of my favorite examples of a recent apology/non-apology formulation is the one tendered on TV by Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican candidate for president, when he was queried about a report that when he was in college he led a pack of bullies who helped inflict a shameful act upon a fellow student. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially, he said, “if” he committed the act, “then” of course he would apologize. Romney to himself: (smirk, smirk) “Well, I guess I took care of that!”

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 15th May, 2012
  • Marc’s Romneyesque example is worded in a similar way to Jeremy Clarkson’s (a British television presenter renowned for being non-PC and extremely blokish) after he caused a furore by saying that strikers should be taken out and shot. His apology went: “If the BBC and I have caused any offence, I’m quite happy to apologise for it alongside them.”
    In the Sun newspaper, he was reported as making a “grovelling apology: “I caused grave offence. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me” – only this one was in response to his revelation that he did not like brown sparrows.

    Posted by Stephen on 15th May, 2012
  • Marc, Stephen: I see “if” used in many pseudo-apologies, such as “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” or “I’m sorry if you can’t take a joke”. It assumes any wrongdoing is hypothetical.
    Though I didn’t follow the Clarkson story closely, I remember an analysis at Language Log that suggests his remarks were taken out of context for the sake of indulging in outrage.

    Posted by Stan on 15th May, 2012
  • I hear “if” pseudo-apologies quite often, and they make me a bit homicidal. “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings” is not only insultingly conditional, it implies the offense is all in the mind of the offended.

    Posted by Michele Hush on 15th May, 2012
  • What Michele said.

    Posted by Diane Nicholls on 15th May, 2012
  • This is a big topic, Stan. On the specifics of your post, how much evidence is there that people actually *say* ‘Apologies.’, baldly, as your post implies? I think I write it sometimes, in emails, for example, to strangers who email me where I feel obliged but not entirely motivated to reply. I might begin ‘Thank you for your email. Apologies for not replying sooner’ or similar, to *excuse* my tardiness, rather than explicitly *apologise* for it. But I would never actually say it to someone in lieu of expressing regret of any kind. What are the contexts where people use this? Can you give examples from spoken corpora? I agree, it sounds distancing and insincere, and if anyone tried to fob me off with the simple word, ‘Apologies’, in a situation where I felt I deserved a real apology, I’d certainly be put out.

    Posted by Diane Nicholls on 15th May, 2012
  • Michele, Diane: Thanks for your thoughts. The “I’m sorry if” type of apology is often problematic, for the reasons Michele says. Sometimes, though, an apology might not be warranted but there’s a sense of obligation to offer one anyway. So I wouldn’t condemn the construction outright. For example, someone might wake from a nap at the same time another person made a noise. Causation is possible but not established, and it doesn’t have to be established, so “I’m sorry if I woke you” can be a sincere and appropriate conditional apology.
    Diane, I didn’t look at corpus examples, but like you I’m interested in other people’s reports of contexts in which they use or hear different kinds of apology. ‘Apologies’ seems fine in situations like work where no feelings are hurt and there’s a possibility of mild inconvenience, so acknowledging this briefly is the polite and professional thing to do. A friend on Twitter said she used ‘Apologies’ at work and ‘Sorry’ when she meant it, which broadly chimes with your comment. But I’ve also heard ‘Apologies’ used in circumstances where it comes across as brusque and inadequate.

    Posted by Stan on 16th May, 2012
  • This is all very interesting, Stan, and I hope we’ll hear from others with their experiences of this and other ways of apologizing. For me (I’m paraphrasing a comment from John Cowan on another blog here), saying ‘Apologies’ is rather like declaring ‘Insults’ at someone instead of getting down to the real business of actually coming up with the relevant invective.

    I was thinking about ‘I think/It seems I owe you an apology …’ – I think this might be one I’ve actually used, but when you think about it, this too seems to be saying something along the lines of ‘I feel like I kind of ought to apologize but I’m a bit loath to do so, so do jump in and tell me there’s no need, go on, please’. It sets the apologizee up for saying ‘no, there’s no need to apologize’, or even ‘No, I’m sorry. It’s all *my* fault’.

    Posted by Diane Nicholls on 16th May, 2012
  • One thing the English tend to do is inappropriately apologize. It’s not uncommon for two people to bump into each other in the street or wherever, and even though one of them is clearly the transgressor both will say “sorry”. To introduce a slightly different point, in French, you’d say “excusez moi” – literally “excuse me”. But it’s also very common to hear people say “je m’excuse” – literally “I excuse myself”. This latter is a turn of phrase that my landlady in Nantes many years ago would rail against, and I sort of saw her point. However, there’s a discussion of this usage in http://fr.wiktionary.org/wiki/je_m%E2%80%99excuse, where they point out that the verb “s’excuser” is a very old word meaning “I present my excuses (or apologies)”, and Collins online offer “to apologize for” as the translation of “s’excuser de”, so the barbarians are maybe not quite so close to the gates after all.

    Posted by Stephen on 16th May, 2012
  • “Because it omits the subject, ‘Apologies’ is somewhat disembodied and abstract”. I think that’s spot on, Stan. There has been a lot of corporate apologizing lately (BP, Toyota, News Corporation, and above all the banks). For the reasons you mention, passives are especially popular (mistakes were made, lessons have been learned etc), and the result is that we never get to know who the ‘agent’ is. There’s a bit more on the same subject here.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 16th May, 2012
  • An apology to me is a concession admitting my regret at having caused inconvenience or grief to anyone including myself. Anything that departs from the act of regret is mere imposition and totally unsatisfactory to most people although tolerated. I wouldn’t normally lie to myself for being sorry about something. Politicians do it all the time, including the likes of Clarkson who is too arrogant to know what is a true apology.

    Posted by Russell on 17th May, 2012
  • Diane: It is an interesting area. Your example “It seems I owe you an apology …” can be taken as you describe it – a prompt for the other party to dismiss the need to apologise – or it can be interpreted as the apology itself.

    Stephen: Irish people use ‘Sorry’ that way too. And it’s often used as a sort of pre-emptive apology for interrupting people or disturbing them briefly, much as ‘Excuse me’ or ‘Pardon me’ would also be used. The French case is instructive, as are the landlady’s feelings about it. Some people get very exercised about the manner of these polite exchanges.

    Michael: The corporate and legal aspects of pseudo-apologies complicate it further. As your conclusion puts it, “if you really say you’re sorry, it’s an admission of guilt” – that is, it could be construed that way, and may therefore influence how certain admissions are made.

    Russell: Yes, it’s a concession. The type and extent of regret vary greatly, though, hence the variation in how people apologise in different circumstances. I don’t know enough about Clarkson to agree or disagree with you on that front. In private, his approach may be very different from what his public persona suggests.

    Posted by Stan on 18th May, 2012
  • Apologies for the tardiness of this comment Stan but my last effort got lost in cyberspace. Thank you for bringing up what is a bugbear of mine – excuses masking as apologies. Someone once advised me that if I am being complimented and there’s a “but” in the sentence (as in ‘you did a wonderful job but….’) I can ignore everything that goes before the ‘but’. I apply the same logic to apologies….and to the use of “if” – as you say, it suggests the wrongdoing is hypothetical. I agree that using the word ‘apologies’ when ‘I’m sorry’ is called for is offhand and I love your ‘Apologies are taking place. Look closely and you might spot them’. I experience a stiff apology or a pseudo one as both insulting. I rate the sincerity of a person’s apology by how I feel afterwards and maybe it’s a personal thing but the word ‘apology’ doesn’t cut it for me, whether it’s personalised or not. I want to hear the word ‘sorry’ in there somewhere! On another level, telling someone you’re sorry can be quite disarming, especially if they are spoiling for a fight….

    Posted by Helen on 30th May, 2012
  • No apologies necessary, Helen: it sounds rather as though cyberspace owes you the apology, but I wouldn’t expect it. The parallel you make with compliments is interesting. It’s an understandable social strategy: that someone would seek to soften criticism by packaging it with praise. The ‘spoonful of sugar’ approach, you could call it. The main thing is that it’s kind, or constructive, just as the most important aspect of an apology is that it’s sincere: a less-than-heartfelt apology just leaves a bad taste. And you make a very good point about an apology’s capacity to stop a potential argument.

    Posted by Stan on 30th May, 2012
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    Posted by Apologies are being expressed… Or are they? | oisesydney on 27th August, 2012
  • An interesting post and discussion. I’ve included it in a discussion of apologies in the workplace at http://proswrite.com/2012/09/01/amateurs-fail-after-a-misdeed/.

    Posted by Dr. Kim on 2nd September, 2012
  • Thank you, Dr. Kim; I very much enjoyed your discussion of the subject, though I wouldn’t call the example therein an “epic fail”.

    Posted by Stan on 3rd September, 2012
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