From what I can tell, there are many ways people use the word "sorry". I'm going to cite 2:

  1. A way to show someone else sympathy for something neither of you had any control over. eg. "I'm sorry that your letter was lost in the mail."
  2. To apologize for something they did to offend you that they did have control over. eg. "I'm sorry that I was angry with you this morning."

Is context the ONLY way to disambiguate between which version of "sorry" a person is using or is there a better way to use "sorry"? On the same token is there a better word to use than "sorry" in the situations I cited?

The reason I'm asking this is because often times the meaning seems to be lost via miscommunication. ie. the word came across but not in the way the orator meant it. Consider the following example:

  • Dave: "I'm going to get a drink from that grocery store, do you want anything?"
  • Cindy: "Sure, get me a Coke Zero if they have it. Thanks."
  • 5 minutes later
  • Dave: "They didn't have Coke Zero so I bought you a regular Coke instead. Sorry."

Did Dave say "sorry" here because he is apologizing for the inconvenience that the store didn't carry Coke Zero or is he saying "sorry" because he failed to bring Cindy her desired drink and feels personally responsable? However frivolous my example may be hopefully you see the point I'm driving at that only Dave knows in which way he said "sorry". I'm hoping one of you can shed some light on this situation in a way that will help me understand how to communicate my "sorry" more efficiently.

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    Could be a bit of both, there's no way Cindy would know exactly what he was apologizing for, or maybe he wasn't even apologizing and was merely offering his sympathies about her situation. If Cindy really wanted to know she could demand "and what, exactly, are you sorry for?" – mfoy_ Jun 26 '15 at 13:36
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    1) Context is the only way to disambiguate between which version of any word a person is using. That's what "context" means. 2) The meaning of any word at all can be lost via miscommunication. That's what "miscommunication" means. – RegDwigнt Jun 26 '15 at 13:40
  • It is ambiguous. To disambiguate and show you're sorry for your actions, you can say 'My apologies'. For the other case, you can say 'Too bad' or something, but it sounds detatched. – Tushar Raj Jun 26 '15 at 13:53
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    The non-verbal 'Sorry' (not quite a grimace) works better with the 'I regret that circumstances were not more propitious on this occasion' situation. Or you could use 'I regret that circumstances were not more propitious on this occasion' ? – Edwin Ashworth Jun 26 '15 at 13:58
  • Maybe another way to disambiguate is the tone or pitch when pronouncing the word sorry. Eg- Mr.A) What have you done? Mr B) I'm sorry (statement). Eg2- Mr.A) My house is in aijfjasfnsdf street. Mr.B) Sorry? (question or I beg your pardon tone) – Invoker Jun 26 '15 at 14:09

Actually, you're quite right about the ambiguity inherent in the word sorry. If you wanted to avoid the ambiguity, you can consider using the word sympathise in place of "sorry" when you want to connote that you don't feel personally responsible for the adverse outcome. Example:

"I heard about you losing your job and I completely sympathise."

Note that there is a distinction between sympathise and emphathise, which are often confused with each other.

Empathise generally also connotes a shared experience or feeling, a "we're in the same boat, mate" feeling. Here's a modification of the above example where "empathise" would be appropriate:

"I heard about you losing your job and I completely empathise, because I recently lost mine too."

Unfortunately, if you are merely reading the word sorry in someone else's writing, there is no way apart from context to unambiguously infer the meaning. Sometimes, this ambiguity is used purposefully to humorous effect. I remember an example from a Billy Bunter book I read in my childhood (I think it was "Billy Bunter and The Man from South America") - I'm paraphrasing from memory here:

Bob Cherry (while twisting Billy's ear): Say "I'm sorry I'm a cad!"

Billy Bunter: Ow! I'm sorry you're a cad!

The rest of the juniors: Ha, ha, ha!

I think you get the idea.

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    I recently had this conversation with my girlfriend. I theorized that saying "sorry" is sympathetic while saying "I apologize" is an admission of guilt to any uncertain degree. Regardless, there's nothing definitive and still the usage is so relative to the orator! C'est la vie – Jacksonkr Jan 5 '16 at 21:12
  • @Jacksonkr I have had the same conversation with my former wife, sorry to say. – user126158 Apr 13 '16 at 2:19

I don't know if it is a better use of sorry, but in the first way of using sorry, you can use upset instead.

Example: "I'm really upset that your letter was lost in the mail."

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