Does anyone know of a specific adjective that one could use to describe a word or phrase that is uttered in a general sense and not meant to be taken personally by the interlocutor?

Example in a short conversation:

  • I’m sorry, but I just don’t have time to do all she asks.
  • (having taken “I’m sorry” personally) You don’t have to be sorry.
  • It was a _______ “I’m sorry.”

I’m not sure if this is specific enough, but we’ll start here and see what you guys think.

  • I'm sorry but your example simply doesn't work. However true either of the first sentences, the third is quite out of proportion. If the Question is truly interesting, can't you find a real example… or a realistic contrivance? Feb 27 '18 at 3:59
  • I apologize, but that IS real example; it came from an actual conversation between two people in which the speaker of the first and third comments paused, looked at me, and said, “How would you call that type of ‘sorry’?” Mar 19 '18 at 14:41
  • 1
    Please first notice there is no place there for “(having taken “I’m sorry” personally)” If you think there is, please explain what difference it makes before “You don’t have to be sorry.” With or without the preamble, “It was a _______ ‘I’m sorry.’ ” has no obvious meaning, much less one relevant to your Question, for the simple reason that the example shows no word or phrase uttered in a general sense and not meant to be taken personally by anyone. Mar 19 '18 at 19:43
  • The word you’re looking for is phatic.
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 12 '18 at 22:23

'It was a generic "I'm sorry." '

generic adjective

1 ... not specific.


Collins adds the synonym 'general', but that doesn't quite work here.


While your question can be improved upon I can understand the difficulty in finding the words.

I believe that your use of "sorry" might be fairly described as more of an interjection, yet saying that would not help another understand.

Other approaches: something that you did not mean to be taken literally would be to say your meant something 'figuratively'

figuratively from Merriam Websters online

a : with a meaning that is metaphorical rather than literal

Speaking of panic, I recently ran into (figuratively, not literally) a friend who was ranting about giant "bees" digging holes in his lawn. —Ron Kujawski

Poor small-town America. During the last gasps of this fevered election, pollsters, zealous campaign foot soldiers and reporters are kicking down its doors, figuratively speaking … —Doug Colligan

Now, strictly speaking, you did NOT use the word figuratively, but because we understand figuratively to basically mean ~not exactly what it means~, I think the word would make the general point.

Another way of describing your use would be to call it a 'rhetorical flourish'.

We most commonly think of "rhetorically" describing question you do not mean to have answered, but if you had said,"I meant the word 'sorry' rhetorically", I think that would also get the point across that the word wasn't meant to be taken strictly.

rhetorical from Websters

1 a : of, relating to, or concerned with rhetoric

b : employed for rhetorical effect; especially : asked merely for effect with no answer expected

for your example

I meant the word "sorry" more figuratively.

I meant 'sorry' more rhetorically.

Apologizing for wording is always awkward though - eliminating the 'I'm sorry' interjection probably would be a good speech habit. (it can come off as less-confident or alternatively a bit patronizing)


In the comments user DanBron said:

The word you’re looking for is phatic.

Macmillan Dictionary gives the following definition and example sentences:


adjective linguistics /ˈfætɪk/

used for describing words or phrases that you use for social reasons, for example in order to be friendly, rather than in order to give information

Phatic language doesn’t really convey any information. Its function is social.

This kind of communication is largely phatic, it bonds people together for social or familial purposes.

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