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Pardon me for breathing: seven types of apology.

"I'M SORRY. Excuse me. Please forgive me. I beg your pardon. I apologize. What do we mean when we say we're sorry? It would seem that we can mean anything from remedial expressions of regret to sarcastic intimations of blame.

In our analysis, we have demarcated seven types of apology. To further understand these seven types, we have employed five etymologies, which we can use as formulas for investigation.

We shall assume that these five etymologies (marked a through e, respectively, and arranged in descending order of frequency of use (1)), have a rough analogy, even though one cannot necessarily replace them with one another, due to restrictions of syntax, context, and usage.

Five Etymologies for Apology

(a) "Sorry" derives from sore; has a similarity in use to German 'es tut mir leid', and to French 'je suis fache de....'

(b) "Excuse" (ex-causa, structurally analogous to German 'ent-schuldigen,' to Russian 'iz-vinit' and to Spanish 'dis-culpar') directly speaks of the removal of accusation.

(c) & (d) "Forgive" (for-giefan), as well as the English/French "pardon" (perdonare) and the German 'vergeben,' indicate to give completely.

(e) "Apologize" (apo-logos, somewhat similar to Russian 'prostit') denotes speaking off, or a speech in defense.

We further explore these etymologies in the footnotes. (2)

For the purpose of analysis, we may regard these etymologies as formulas. Consider these recent news items. Following each item, we have put in parenthesis the letters indicating which of the five formulas/etymologies these apologies employ:
 "Russian President Vladimir Putin apologized for the captives'
 deaths [held by Chechen rebels in a Moscow theatre] in a
 television address saying: 'Please forgive us. The memory of the
 victims must unite all of us'" (10-27-02 CNN). (e, c)

 "Les excuses de Saddam Hussein au peuple koweitien: 'Nous demandons
 pardon a Dieu pour tout acte ayant souleve sa colere dans le passe
 ... et dans cet esprit, nous vous presentons egalement nos
 excuses'" (3) (12-7-02 Le Monde). (b, d, b)

 Cardinal Bernard Law, on his resignation from the Archdiocese of
 Boston: "To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and
 mistakes, I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness"
 (12-14-02 CNN). (e, c)

 "Fighting for his political life, Republican Senate leader Trent
 Lott offered a public mea culpa for comments that appeared to
 endorse segregation: 'I apologize for opening old wounds and
 hurting many Americans who feel so deeply in this area.' ... He
 asked people to 'find it in their heart' to forgive him" (1214-02
 CNN). (e, c)

In these news items, the speakers use several different formulas inter-changeably, occasionally employing more than one for the sake of strengthening their statement (and perhaps in order to drive home its sincerity; see Moore, 2001 on such uses of tautologies). (4)

In spite of their highly varied sources, all of these expressions seem to convey the speaker's acknowledgment of some wrongdoing, coupled with a request to extenuate blame. And yet avowals of apology may greatly differ from one another with respect to the degree of regret involved. We have arranged the following in descending order on this "scale of compunction." (5, 6) We must keep in mind that recipients have no valid information about senders' intentions. Specifically, they do not know whether senders freely choose to apologize or feel coerced to do so, act out of sincerity or hypocritically distort their apologetic statements. This scale has no objective basis; furthermore, nuances of intonation and other aspects of non-verbal communication will affect it.

Seven Types of Apology

1. I'm sorry for having stepped on your toe.

I know I've hurt you. Believe me that I didn't intend to. I wish I hadn't done it or that I could undo it. Given another chance I would be more careful. I regret having done it. (Formulas a, b, c, d, e)

This type of apology serves as the prototype for the expression of religious repentance. In none of the other types can we find the element of regret and a promise not to repeat the offense:
 O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest
 all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because
 they offend Thee, my God, Who art all-good and deserving of all my
 love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more
 and to avoid the near occasions of sin. (Act of Contrition in the
 Catholic liturgy. There exist many forms of the Act of Contrition;
 the above standard form appears in such sources as the Baltimore
 Catechism). (7)

Even this seemingly most remorseful expression carries no information about its sincerity. To clarify this point, consider that not only religions exact a request for forgiveness (by making such set formulas mandatory); identical mechanisms appear in such widely different frameworks as diplomatic relationships and family interactions. As an illustration of the former, consider a 2001 incident, when the Chinese government refused to release a U.S. plane and its 24 crew members, until the U.S. administration apologized (more about this incident below). One can find many similar incidents in the annals of diplomacy. (8)

At the family level most of us have probably heard parents warning their children: "Apologize, or else!" or: "Say you're sorry!" (See Kramer-Moore & Moore, 2002, pp. 167-168, for several examples, as well as an analysis of the pathogenic family process involved). A well-known literary example appears in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
 "--O, Stephen will apologize.
 Dante said:--O, if not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes.
 --Pull out his eyes,/Apologize,/Apologize,/Pull out his eyes.
 /Apologize,/ Pull out his eyes,/Pull out his eyes,/Apologize."
 (Joyce, 1916/1965, p. 8.)

Both of these examples demonstrate the use of empty phrases. Those who extract an apology (as in the often used formula: "I demand an apology!") encourage whitewashing and the word magic (see Moore, 1995/96) inherent in substituting words for deeds (or maps for territories; see Korzybski, 1958).

2. Sorry for interrupting.

I know that you consider what I've done wrong or impolite. I wish I hadn't had to do it, but I had no choice. Given the same circumstances, I'd do it again. (a, b, c, d, e)

This polite formula has some practical value in that it smoothes interaction in formal social encounters. While it may also contain a modicum of regret, it certainly lacks a promise of non-repetition. The following formula bears this out: "Excuse me! Excuse me!" (Same as the French "Pardon!"), said when pushing through a crowd, bumping into people repeatedly. (a, d)

3. I'm sorry you're sick (or have lost your job, or did not hit the jackpot).

I've got nothing to do with this, but if I could, I'd change it. I say this just to make you feel better, to show that I commiserate. (a)

We have moved further down on the "scale of compunction." While expressing misgivings about the addressee's situation, this speaker does not assume any responsibility for it. Consequently s/he can logically express no regret, nor offer any promises regarding the future. The above quoted Sino-American diplomatic incident comes close to this type of apologizing, but only from the American perspective. According to Wanderer's report (2001) the solution of the diplomatic standoff hinged exactly on the ambiguity of "I'm sorry." The following excerpts bear out this interpretation:
 "... the United States issued a statement expressing 'sincere
 regret' over the lost Chinese pilot, and stating it is 'very sorry
 the entering of Chinese airspace and the landing did not have verbal
 clearance.' Chinese TV translated this 'very sorry' with a Chinese
 word connoting an admission of fault." (Wanderer, 2001, p. 218).

 "In his letter, Powell expressed regret for the missing Chinese
 pilot, presumed dead, after his fighter jet collided with the spy
 plane. But he stopped short of issuing an apology and instead urged
 Beijing to end the standoff." (CNN April 5, 2001).

 "'There was nothing to apologize for,' Powell told reporters in
 Paris on Wednesday. 'To apologize would have suggested that we
 had done something wrong and we accepted responsibility for having
 done something wrong. And we did not do anything wrong. Therefore,
 it was not possible to apologize.'" (CNN April 11, 2001).

We feel obligated to add that the Chinese language permits four levels of apology, ranging from a mild 'sorry' to the formula used by a criminal in capital crimes (Marquand, 2001; Japanese has a similar wealth of apology expressions (9)). No wonder Seekins (2001) observed, in this specific context that: "... the politics of apologies is a fascinating, ambiguous blend of moral indignation and coercive arm twisting. In daily life as well as international relations, one needs to be most careful about saying 'I'm sorry.'"

4. Excuse me?

I didn't hear/understand you; could you please repeat what you've just said? I know this causes you some inconvenience and I wish I didn't have to do it, but I have no choice. (a, b, d)

This type bears some similarity to Number 2, above (both belong to the "polite" category), but it appears in different situations. It implies neither regret nor a promise of future avoidance. One can see its distance from apologizing through common dictionary substitutions, such as the less courteous "Come again?"

5. Sorry if I've hurt you.

I don't think I've done anything wrong, but if you feel I have, I'll give you the benefit of doubt and apologize. (a, e)

Not only does this speaker show no regret, s/he even condescends and blames the other for over-sensitivity (in contradistinction to the slight empathy discernible in Number 3, above). What choices does the addressee have? By accepting this left-handed apology s/he accepts the label of touchiness. By rejecting it s/he becomes a bad sport.

6. Excuse rod! (ironic, with two exaggerated stresses).

I know that you'd prefer that I didn't exist, but I won't give you that pleasure. I have no intention of apologizing. (b)

Rather than illustrating apologizing, both this and the following type provide examples of verbal aggression (cf. Lederer & Jackson, 1968, pp. 141-144). Instead of offering an apology, the speaker hints that the recipient should feel guilty and apologize. A triple-message characterizes irony and sarcasm: The speaker's unstated agenda, and the two opposing messages these tropes contain. "Irony and sarcasm" wrote Kramer-Moore & Moore (2002, p. 137) "mask violence through clever repartees no less deadly to a relationship than less abstract forms of fighting." Recipients of such a message find themselves in a doublebind: If they complain of the insult, they lack a sense of humor; if they ignore it, they lack understanding.

7. Excuse me? (exaggeratedly incredulous).

I can't believe what I've just heard, so I pretend, ironically, that I've misheard you. (a, b, d)

As in both of the above types, the ambiguity of this utterance puts the listener at a disadvantage. If s/he takes it at face value (regarding it as Number 3, above) and repeats the message, the recipient will most likely retort: "I heard you the first time!" Any other response constitutes joining the fray.

To conclude this short stroll through the thorny garden of apology, we want to touch upon its relevance to matters psychological.

When perceived as sincere, an apology entails the admittance of guilt (sometimes with legal ramifications). According to Mussen, Conger & Kagan (1969) guilt ("moral anxiety" in Freudian terminology) "is a special state of anxiety that does not appear until about age 3 to 4" (p. 138). Both classical psychoanalytic theory and its neo-Freudian version concur: In the third stage of psychosexual development the superego evolves. It contains two components: the ego ideal, containing the desirable and rewarded aspects of one's personality, and the conscience, responsible for self-reproach and feelings of guilt. Apologizing releases the stress produced by guilt feelings, thus serving as a defense mechanism. Sincere apologies, in which the individual takes upon self the responsibility for some wrongdoing, absolves one's conscience through so-called undoing. At the other end of the above continuum, the use of apology as a method for blaming the other puts the recipient on the defensive, and thus entails the projection of guilt.

Erikson's neo-Freudian approach regards the development of guilt as the negative outcome of the third crisis of psychosocial development. Children who grow up in a restricting environment, where significant adults often block ambition and curiosity, soon experience guilt associated with inevitable transgressions. Instead of gaining this stage's highly valued outcome (i.e., initiative), they may become subject to self-doubt and to underachievement.

In existential psychology, primary guilt starts at birth: "Man's existential guilt consists in his failing to carry out the mandate to fulfill all his possibilities" (Boss, 1963, p. 270); such inescapable guilt ends only with the death of its bearer.

Virginia Satir's communication model (Satir, Stachowiak & Taschman, 1975; see Moore & Kramer, 1999/2000) also bears on this issue. Two of her four pathological communication patterns, the placater and the blamer, may both manipulate their target through "apologizing": the former by using types 1, 2, or 3 of the above list; the latter by resorting to types 5, 6, or 7 (type number 4 has a neutral quality in this respect).

The topic of forgiveness has created in recent years considerable psychological interest, as attested by the proliferation of texts dealing with it, e.g., Enright (2001), Enright & North (1998), Flanigan (1992), McCullough, Pargament & Thoresen (2000), the last one containing articles from the religious to the neuropsychological aspects of forgiveness. Many of these (e.g., Walrond-Skinner, 1998) dwell upon the positive, to some extent healing, aspects of the act of forgiving. Yet from the psychological point of view, any asking for forgiveness, even the most honest and sincere apologizing, has considerable disadvantages. In intimate relationships (such as family interactions) both the demanding and the acceptance of an apology, on the one hand, indicate unhealthy stratification and power differentials between the parties. The offering of an apology, on the other hand, especially when done repeatedly, may not only become manipulative (10), but also creates the impression that by a mere utterance one can erase previous deeds, without coping with the underlying conflict and the painful issue of guilt. As we have seen above, even more serious difficulties arise on the many occasions where the motivation behind an apology has some ambiguity: Guilt shifts back and forth between sender and recipient, and mystification (Kramer-Moore & Moore, 2002, pp. 139-144) prevents congruent communication.


(1.) Frequency in a 5-million-word sample used by grades 3 to 9 in 1969 (Carroll, Davis & Richman, 1971): apology and related words 40; excuse etc., 104; forgive etc., 43; pardon etc., 41; sorry 282.

(2.) In other languages one finds interesting, occasionally surprising, sources for words related to our topic:

Russian 'prostit' (v.) means both forgive and take leave; derives from 'prost,' simple, open, free, natural, which in its turn derives from 'pro-' and 'sto.' The former stands for the prefix 'for,' while the latter has to do with abundant, copious, rich, far, remote, away, in good repair.

Hungarian 'bocsanat' (n.) (pardon) derives from Turkish sources, where it indicates: free, empty, become or let free; related to 'bucsu': leave-taking, farewell, religious indulgence, pilgrimage. The root carries a double meaning analogous to Russian: 'megbocsat' (v.) (pardon) and 'elbocsat' (dismiss, release).

German 'Verzeihung' (n.) (pardon) denotes the negation of 'zeihen,' to accuse, related to 'zeigen,' to point, to show, and to 'sagen,' say. Hence 'verzeihen,' to refrain from, to forgive, pardon, excuse. Another German word related to this topic, 'bedauern,' regret, be sorry, derives from 'teuer' (dear).

Hebrew has several expressions: The root SLH (forgive, pardon) comes from Accadian, where it meant: to throw water (perhaps indicating some ancient forgiving custom). When used in this context, the root NTzL (apologize) means: remove from oneself. The root TzA'R, closest in meaning to English sorry, indicates sorrow, sadness. MHL (forgive, pardon) may derive from wipe away, clean. Finally KPR (excuse; as in Yore Kippur or the Day of Atonement) derives either from Accadian (to sweep, to clean), or from Arabic (to cover).

(3.) "Saddam Hussein's apologies to the Kuwaiti people: 'We ask God's pardon for all the actions that have raised his ire in the past ... and in this spirit we similarly offer you our apologies.'"

(4.) See also the formula: "forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement" in the Jewish liturgy for Yom Kippur.

(5.) Additional formulas and expressions abound:

I'm so sorry; you'll be sorry!; I'm sorry to hear that. Accept my apology; I owe you an apology; my [most] sincere apology; my apologies; a thousand apologies; I apologize in advance; a formal apology; 1 demand an apology.

Inexcusable; lame excuse; may I be excused?; I want [wish] to excuse myself; what's your excuse?

I beg for forgiveness; please forgive me; forgive and forget; to err is human, to forgive, divine; to understand is to forgive.

Tout comprendre c'est tout pardoner; pardon my French!

Related idioms, not using any of the above roots: to eat humble pie, dirt, crow, one's own words.

(6.) Consider the nuances of the following: absolution, amnesty, atonement, clemency, compassion, compunction, confession, contrition, exculpation, exoneration, forbearance, indulgence, getting off, mea culpa, mercy, penitence, regret, remission, remorse, repentance.

(7.) Note the expressions equivalent to the English "I am heartily sorry" italicized in German, French, Spanish and Latin:

Alle meine Sunden sind mir leid von Grund meines Herzens ... (Akt der Reue).

J'ai un tres grand regret de Vous avoir offense ... (Acte de Contrition).

Me pesa de todo corazon de haber pecado ... (Acto de contricion).

Ex toto corde poenitet me omnium meorum peccatorum ... (Actus Contritionis).

8. A few recent incidents involving the demand for a formal apology:

* China has demanded an apology from the United States for the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Monday (5-10-99 CNN).

* East Timorese protesters demand apology and reparations from the U.S. for Washington's support for Indonesian invasion and occupation of their country (7-4-00 AP).

* Japanese demand traditional apology from [US] sub commander (2-23-01 AP).

* South Korean President Kim Dae-jung has demanded that North Korea apologize for the "provocation" that sparked a naval battle that killed four South Korean sailors (7-2-02 BBC).

* North Korea demanded that Japan apologize and pay for its past colonial domination (10-30-02 Agence France-Presse).

* The United States said on Friday it had demanded an apology from Zimbabwe for detaining and questioning a U.S. diplomat for about an hour this week (2-15-03 CNN).

(9.) "I shall give the House the briefest of lessons in the Japanese way of apology. In English, one says, 'I am sorry,' or, 'I apologise,' and there are not many more ways of expressing apology. In Japanese, there are a great many ways. One says, 'shitsurei shimasu,' or, 'gomen nasai,' if one accidentally bumps into someone. The word used by the Japanese Prime Minister on behalf of the Japanese Government was 'owabi,' which is translated as 'apology.' That is a formal, high-level apology. Many representatives of the prisoners of war and internees want the word 'shazai' to be used. It is not possible to translate 'shazai' other than in the same way as 'owabi'--'apology.' Many former prisoners of war and civilian internees argue ... that an apology is meaningless without further compensation." (Jane Griffiths, M. P., in the UK Parliament, 29 April, 1998). See also the following regarding yet another expression of apologizing in Japanese culture. "Sumimasen" means "I cannot make up for what you have done for me well enough! ... It's pro-forma, but the authorities will be impressed by how you've learned your lesson. That's sumimasen: apology without end. It's the Japanese version of throwing yourself on the mercy of the court" (Chrichton, 1992, p. 138).

(10.) In his foreword to Enright & North (1998), Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes: "When you say to me 'I'm sorry,' in my Christian understanding I am then constrained by the Gospel imperative to forgive" (pp. xiii-xiv).


Boss, Medard (1963). Psychoanalysis and Daseinsanalysis. New York: Basic Books.

Carroll, J. B., Davis, P. & Richman, B. (1971). Word Frequency Book. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Chrichton, Michael (1992). Rising sun. NY: Ballantine.

Enright, Robert D. (2001). Forgiveness and Choice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Enright, Robert D. & North, Joanna (Eds.) (1998). Exploring Forgiveness. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Flanigan, Beverly (1992). Forgiving the Unforgivable. New York: Macmillan.

Joyce, James (1965). A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Harmondsworth: Penguin (originally published 1916).

Korzybski, Alfred (1958). Science and Sanity, 4th ed. Lakeville, CT: International Non-Aristotelian Library.

Kramer-Moore, Daniela & Moore, Michael (2002). Life Imitates Art--Encounters Between Family Therapy and Literature. New York: Solomon Press.

Lederer, William J. & Jackson, Don D. (1968). The Mirages of Marriage. New York: Norton.

Marquand, Robert (2001). US 'sorry' heard in Beijing as an apology. Christian Science Monitor, April 12.

McCullough, Michael E., Pargament, Kenneth I., & Thoresen, Carl E. (Eds.) (2000). Forgiveness--Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Guilford.

Moore, Michael (1995/1996). Pathological communication patterns in Heller's Catch-22. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 52, 431-439.

Moore, Michael (2001). "This is like deja vu all over again": Eight types of tautology. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 58, 151-165.

Moore, Michael & Kramer, Daniela (1999/2000). Satir for beginners: Incongruent communication patterns in romantic fiction. ETC. A Review of General Semantics, 56, 429-437.

Mussen, Paul H., Conger, John J. & Kagan, Jerome (1969). Child Development and Personality, 3rd ed. New York: Harper & Row.

Satir, Virginia, Stachowiak, J., & Taschman, H. A. (1975). Helping Families to Change. New York: Aronson.

Seekins, Donald (2001). Politics, power and apologies. Ryukyu Shimpo Internet Weekly News, May 14.

Walrond-Skinner, Sue (1998). The function and role of forgiveness in working with couples and families: clearing the ground. Journal of Family Therapy, 20, 3-19.

Wanderer, Robert (2001). Swallows return to Capistrano, sort of. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 58, 216-218.

Michael Moore, Daniela Kramer-Moore is a Senior Lecturer at Oranim, College of Education of the Kibbutz Movement in Tivon, Israel. Dr. Michael Moore, a social psychologist, is an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Education in Science and Technology at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology.
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Date:Jun 22, 2003
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