Consider this example:

I'm sorry if you got the impression that I meant to insult you. That was not my intention.

Would it be correct to say that the above person apologized?

All the dictionaries I have checked defined "to apologize" as admitting one's fault. However, in the above example, the person is not conceding he is making a mistake; he is merely clarifying his intent and, well, apologizing if he hurt the other person's feelings. Yet, based on my understanding of the verb, it would be adequate to say that the person apologized.

So, does apologizing really require being at fault?

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    Good question. A proper answer can only really be given here in terms of real-life experience with language, which indicates that usafe is a lot more complex than dictionaries suggest! – Noldorin Jan 16 '11 at 23:19
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    That sounds like a politician's apology... :) – Benjol Jan 17 '11 at 8:14
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    I’m assuming this refers to the thread on atheism.SE? By the way, I agree with Benjol. Which is also why I find the answers on the atheism.SE question very, very tedious. – Konrad Rudolph Jan 17 '11 at 19:55
  • I once had a situation in which I was wrong, and this occurred with my daughter present. I formulated my theory of a good apology - - Admit doing whatever you are sorry for - Acknowledge how it impacted the person or why it was wrong - Promise not to do it again My daughter was only 8 at the time, and my own apology was both to set an example for her and to tell the person I offended that I was sorry in a way that made my sincerity undeniable. – JTP - Apologise to Monica Nov 19 '13 at 20:09

This topic was addressed by The Idealistic Pragmatist back in a 2005 blog article:

Way back in the year of this idealistic pragmatist's birth, Searle laid out the criteria a statement has to fulfill in order to qualify as an apology, and in layman's terms, we can say that it requires two parts: 1) regret (the "I'm sorry" or "I apologize" part), and 2) responsibility (some explicit statement that you were the one who did the thing that's being apologized for). The statement "I'm sorry that I borrowed your jacket without asking," for example, meets both of those criteria.

She dubs the type of sentence you cited above as a "fauxpology", where an ersatz apology expresses regret but not responsibility:

Often, people will use a rhetorical trick in which they make a statement that has a lot of the superficial trappings of an apology, but without one or both of those basic criteria of form. I call these statements "fauxpologies." ... Another classic type of fauxpology is to say something like: "I'm sorry if I borrowed your jacket without asking." The responsibility criterion is similarly missing here, since the speaker is expressing regret only if a condition is true, but weaseling out of any admission that it is true. The effect of statements like these, if used skillfully, is to make recipients feel as if they should feel apologized to, despite the fact that no actual apology ever took place. They're not apologies, but rhetorical tricks for weaseling out of taking actual responsibility.

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  • I accepted this answer because the material Oddthinking links to answers my question the most clearly: an apology has two components, regret and responsibility. – Borror0 Jan 18 '11 at 23:06

The statement

I'm sorry if you got the impression that I meant to insult you. That was not my intention.

is an apology of sorts, but it borders on the confrontational. By saying "you got the impression" you are absolving your own communication of any fault, when in fact there is a chance you may have phrased your statement in a way that could be misconstrued by well-meaning people.

If you are really concerned that you have offended someone, it doesn't hurt to admit that possibility with something like

I'm sorry, perhaps I didn't make my meaning clear. It was not my intention to insult you.

This assumes some responsibility for the missed communication without losing your own dignity.

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    A good example. Apologising for giving the wrong impression is indeed an apology, because you admit you did something wrong. It is just not about the wrong that the other person took offence at: you are rather saying that the perceived wrong never happened, and you are apologising for something else that you do admit was wrong. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 17 '11 at 0:22
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    @Cerberus: Actually, it is not, strictly speaking, an apology at all. It is merely an acknowledgement that a communication might have been missed and that you might have been the one to flub it. It also leaves the door open for the other person to realize he might have made the error, but either way you are the person who is prepared to be an adult about the matter. Phrased in the nicest possible way, of course. – Robusto Jan 17 '11 at 3:49
  • Agreed, it is usually not a functional apology at all, except when someone actually means to say that the miscommunication was his fault because he used an ambiguous phrase. But even then, as you say, feeling insulted instead of giving the "insultor" the benefit of the doubt may very well be taken as the bigger mistake. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 17 '11 at 5:04
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    Honestly, I don't think that your answer addresses the questions in the OP "Would it be correct to say that the above person apologized?" and "So, does apologizing really require being at fault?". You sort of deal with the second one in the comments, but only tangentially. – CesarGon Jan 18 '11 at 9:38

Saying sorry does not always imply admission of a fault. You can e.g. say "I'm sorry to hear that your house got washed away by the flood".

Your example uses a common "trick" to avoid the issue of fault. Instead of feeling sorry for the action the he/she feels sorry for how it was received; leaving open if being insulted is a reasonable / foreseeable response to the action (and thus require apologizing).

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    +1 You nicely explained this subtle but common abuse of "sorry". I'd say that an apology in modern English requires admitting that you did something wrong. What resembles an apology is merely a display of sympathy. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 16 '11 at 22:46
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    You hit the nail on the head here. (Sorry to be cliched.) The word can be used genuinely, flippantly, sarcastically, and in a large number of other ways. – Noldorin Jan 16 '11 at 23:17
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    @Cerberus has succinctly stated it. An apology is not sympathy. It is remorse. – ghoppe Jan 17 '11 at 21:13

This may be an ethical issue more than a language use issue.

A meaningful apology does require admitting fault.

As others pointed out, saying "I'm sorry" often does not imply an apology. Sometimes, it signifies regret that something happened, regardless of fault. However, it can also be a mere prop, without even indicating a sincere wish that a fact was not so ("I'm sorry, but it had to be done.").

From an ethical standpoint, I think passing off a non-apology as an apology is sneaky, dishonest and patronizing.

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Saying you're sorry doesn't necessarily imply admission of guilt and you say as much with "That was not my intention".

Sorry is often described in four flavours:

  1. I'm sorry, it was my fault. (I admit wrong and am asking for forgiveness).
  2. I'm sorry, I regret it. (I understand your offence and I'm asking you to understand that it wasn't intentional).
  3. I'm sorry to hear that. (I'm showing empathy, I had nothing to do with it).
  4. I'm sorry you feel that way. (I'm being falsely polite, I don't accept your reaction and I'm not sorry at all)

Your apology is 2 with just a hint of 4.

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    With the fourth entry, it is of the empathy kind as in three, but with the empathy and sorrow being for the speaker, a variant way of saying "I am sad you feel that way" - i.e. sorry is being used in place of sad/unhappy, etc. – Orbling Jan 17 '11 at 22:37

In 2001, a US spy plan was forced down on China's Hainan Island. The Chinese insisted that the US apologize, and they did, after a fashion. The Bush administration issued a "Letter of two sorries," and the language included an apology that was ambiguous in both Chinese and English:

Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss.

(I couldn't find the reference, but I think the letter also said "It was regrettable.")

This language of diplomacy was more designed to save face than to actually issue an apology. In a sense, it accomplished what it was designed to do: It sounded enough like an apology to appease Beijing, it facilitated the release of the 24 crew members, and it didn't say "The US was at fault."

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