I often hear people (especially policitians) giving an "apology" that is phrased so that the speaker does not seem to be accepting blame.

e.g. Instead of

"I am sorry I let you down"

they say:

"I am sorry if you feel I let you down."


I'm sorry if I let you down.

Can these be considered apologies? In the first, the speaker almost sounds to me as though he is feeling sorry for you for (mistakenly) feeling that he let you down.

In the second, the speaker doesn't seem to be acknowledging he let you down at all.

  • 2
    This is a good question for an etiquette site, but not a good fit here. – Mitch Oct 18 '11 at 12:23
  • It is definitely a way to avoid taking the blame. A particularly slippery example is I'm sorry you believe that, which in certain circumstances is subtly condescending. – TLP Oct 18 '11 at 12:25
  • 4
    To continue the progression: "I'm sorry that you are so hypersensitive." and "I'm sorry I ever met you." – JeffSahol Oct 18 '11 at 12:39
  • possible duplicate of Are "Conditional apology" and "poisoned apology", rude? – aedia λ Oct 18 '11 at 16:18
  • This question has been closed as off topic. Please can someone explain why. – Urbycoz Oct 19 '11 at 7:41

There is a wikipedia article on non-apology which goes into some further detail.

In actual use, even though these conditionals are not really apologies, they can still be honestly used if you deliver them sincerely.

Though I would use these only in the cases where it is not clear where the guilt lies, to express recognition that I might have caused offense. The difference is that in this case I want to express that I am sorry for the outcome and not necessarily for the action that caused it.

| improve this answer | |

An "apology" includes admitting guilt, and adding these conditionals is a clear avoidance of this.

It's true that this kind of weasel wording is especially common (and meaningless) in messages of kindness & sensitivity like your examples, and even more so with politicians. In these cases, people favor using safe wording that does not accuse anyone - even the speaker.

So, while in general you cannot break down messages like these word-by-word and use logic to find the "true" meaning, it is also true that if a politician is saying this, you must know that the wording has been chosen carefully and skepticism must be used in its interpretation. Furthermore, this exact scenario you describe is well-known - enough that if I used this kind of apology with my wife, she'd pick up on the diversion immediately and accuse me of not being sincere.

Logic will however not have any bearing on whether the statement is actually sincere or not.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It's what separates us from the animals...except the weasel. – Urbycoz Oct 18 '11 at 12:34

As someone else said, this is more etiquette than language, but to throw in my two cents:

There are occasions where an apology of this sort could be sincere. You might say something that you meant innocently but that the other person misinterpreted. (Like, I recall once someone brought some donuts into work and I made a joking comment to the effect that eating these could make you get fat, I forget the exact words. A woman present thought I meant that she was fat from eating too many donuts. No matter how many times I tried to explain, she disliked me for the rest of my life.) Under such circumstances, it is common to say, "I'm sorry if it came out that way" or "I'm sorry if you misunderstood what I meant". In such an apology you are denying that you intended to offend, but sincerely apologizing that your poor choice of words or tone led to a misinterpretation.

That said, very often people do something stupid, unethical, or immoral, and then try to evade responsibility with a non-apology. Like someone is caught stealing and says, "I'm sorry if my actions were misinterpreted," when of course his problemm is that people interpreted his actions exactly correctly. Or pretty often politicians make an insulting comment about a person or group in what they think is a private conversation, but they are overheard or someone present tells others about the comment, and they make these non-apologies. Like I don't know how many times I've heard a politician say something like, "Wow, Ruritanians are stupid and ugly". Then he finds out that the microphone was still on and everyone heard what he said, and so he comes out with a statement like, "I'm sorry if my comments were misinterpreted. I have great respect for Ruritanians. What I meant to say was that Ruritanians are 'solid and happy', but I had a slip of the tongue."

I remember when I was a kid, there was a regular routine we'd go through where one could would insult another, like say, "You're stupid!" Then his mother or the teacher would say, "Billy! That's terrible. Say you're sorry." And Billy would say, "Oh, okay. Joe, I'm sorry that you're stupid."

Lately it's become popular among American politicians to "apologize" for racist actions committed by their ancestors. I don't see how this is an apology at all. The whole idea of an apology is that you are humbling yourself and confessing to your faults. Apologizing for something that someone else did, where you make clear that you totally condemn their actions and that you would never have done anything of the kind, isn't an "apology" at all. It's the exact opposite of an apology. You're not humbling yourself. Quite the contrary, your whole purpose is to make it absolutely clear that you are morally superior to the people who did these things. You're bragging, not apologizing.

| improve this answer | |

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.