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Sorry is the hardest word

I mentioned in a recent post that when people say ‘I’m sorry’, they’re not necessarily apologising. It is just as often a signal that the speaker isn’t sorry at all, but is about to tell you something you don’t really want to hear (this is especially likely when ‘I’m sorry’ is preceded by well or followed by but). So it was a surprise last week to find all the British newspapers sporting a full-page advertisement headed ‘We are sorry’ and signed by Rupert Murdoch – with no wells or buts in sight. The ad related to the News International phone hacking scandal which has already led to several arrests and the closure of the UK’s best-selling newspaper – and it conveyed what looked like an unequivocal apology.

Well, up to a point. The wording of the third sentence is interesting: ‘We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred’. Firstly, this appears to shift responsibility: not ‘we are sorry for what we did’, but ‘we are sorry this happened’. This is reminiscent of a well-known trick used by companies when customers make a complaint: instead of just saying ‘yes, we messed up and we’re sorry’, they often say something like ‘we’re sorry you feel our service has not been good enough’ – thus implying that it’s, you, the customer who is at fault for making a fuss. The second oddity is the combination of ‘wrongdoing’ and ‘occur’. Corpus data shows that the most typical subjects of occur are words like incident, accident, explosion, collision, and fire – in other words, unfortunate events that ‘just happen’, without really being anyone’s fault. ‘Wrongdoing’, on the other hand, doesn’t just happen.

An even stranger combination (linguistically speaking) came up when Murdoch was questioned in the British House of Commons. He announced that ‘this is the most humble day of my life’. Our corpus has over 15,000 instances of humble, and not one of them modifies dayhumble usually describes people (‘I’m just a humble footsoldier’), their actions (‘a humble apology’), or their background (‘a man who rose from humble beginnings’). The expected word here might be humiliating but this wasn’t the intended message. Perhaps humble was used to suggest that the speaker was a powerless and non-threatening person.

When Murdoch’s son James was questioned about money paid to people who had threatened to sue his paper, he said ‘The company paid out-of-court settlements approved by me’. Though this acknowledges his role, the passive (‘approved by me’) slightly weakens the effect, and this device appears again when he is asked whether his paper had paid the legal fees of a journalist who was jailed for using illegal methods: ‘Certain legal fees were paid for Mr Mulcaire’. Using the passive is a classic device for abdicating (or at least diluting) responsibility. A popular response when you have made a mess of things is to say that ‘mistakes were made’, and the corpus is full of examples:

Bush has gone as far as admitting mistakes were made in Iraq in the pre-war planning
He accepted mistakes were made with the organization of last year’s event
The company has acknowledged that mistakes were made in the past
We did consult with all interested parties, but mistakes were made during this process

And after mistakes have been made, ‘lessons are learned’. There has been some interesting commentary on the linguistic choices made by the various parties in this ongoing saga, but as others have pointed out, fear of litigation or prosecution is a dominant motive. Because if you really say you’re sorry, it’s an admission of guilt.

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Michael Rundell


  • Yes, I was struck by Rupert Murdoch’s ‘This is the most humble day of my life’ too and agree that it sounds odd. I thought he probably meant to say ‘humbling’, which wouldn’t suggest quite as much self-abasement as ‘humiliating’ would have done.

  • “Because if you really say you’re sorry, it’s an admission of guilt”

    And if you really mean it – and it’s not just regret at being caught – then it’s an expression of sincere humility, too. You can’t see me, but I’m wearing my Not Convinced hat.

    Qualified apologies have become almost an art form. Thanks for this clear analysis.

  • Like Andrew, I also wondered if ‘humbling’ would have been a better word to go with ‘day’. But the corpus data suggests that’s not quite right either. ‘Humbling’ is often found with adjectives like ‘uplifting’ and ‘inspiring’. There area couple of cases where a celebrity visits a group of disabled children in Africa and describes the experience as ‘humbling’ – implying a sense of perspective about your own trivial problems when faced with other people’s heroism. That doesn’t really fit the situation we have here. I heard that most of the foreign newspapers translated Rupert’s ‘humble’ as ‘humiliating’, but not sure if that proves anything!

  • Thought provoking analysis of well known myth. I also believe ‘I Love You” is a similar example. It means mostly what it does. Nonetheless, it is used as frequently as saying ‘Thank you’ and four letter ‘F’ word.

    Overall I loved it.
    Thanks for your time.

    PS: Yes! I’m not making sense here.

  • True apologies follow the Sacrament of Penance: they require confession (“I did wrong”), contrition (“I am very sorry for what I did”) and promise of amendment (“I promise never to do it again”). If these are lacking, what you have is a pseudo-apology. Unlike the Sacrament, apologies to fellow human beings are not necessarily followed by absolution (“I forgive you for what you did wrong”), but to my mind that is all the more reason for giving them.

  • […] Michael Rundell’s blog post made the point that proper apologies require speakers to accept their role as agent of the misdeed. Again, speech act theory supports his view by including a condition that our words count as an apology only if we express a harmful act we carried out. Our letter writer implies his area’s agency for misdeeds by writing, “our delays” and “our performance issues.” Because the letter writer expressed no sorrow about the misdeeds, it’s not possible for him to accept agency. […]

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