Non-apologies and their many names

Non-apologies are a curious beast. I mean the kind of statement that purports to be an apology – e.g. for bad behaviour or hurtful remarks – but isn’t a sincere apology at all.

Linguistically and psychologically they fascinate me, even as they exasperate. So I wrote about this for Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog:

When guilty people aren’t really sorry (or are worried about the legal implications), they don’t want to make a direct, unqualified admission. This is not a definitive science: Someone might say “I’m very sorry for what I did” and not mean it, or apologize tortuously but with heartfelt intent. Nevertheless, non-apologies tend to ring conspicuously false, being variously couched in ifs, buts, hedges, deflection, qualification, self-absorption, euphemism, defensiveness, obfuscation, and the agentless passive voice (“Mistakes were made”). I’m just sorry I got called out is a common subtext.

Non-apologies also have a lot of names. I tend to use non-apology; it’s concise, transparent, well-formed and cadenced. But I’ve also used nonpology, unapology, fauxpology, pseudo-apology, and sorry not sorry. And there are others: I’ve seen about 20 so far. This is partly because there’s no standard term for them yet, and also because their content and structure vary so much.

You can pop over to Lexicon Valley to see a list, to read more about the nature of non-apologies (and gasp in horror at real-life examples), and to find out what constitutes a genuine apology. The Lexicon Valley blog is excellent, by the way. So is the podcast, but you knew that.


false apology cards - Tony Carrillo F minus comics

[F Minus comic by Tony Carillo, via Language Log]


If the subject interests you, particularly its psychological aspects, read Rascality’s ‘The difference between explaining & apologizing‘ and his follow-up case study.

A noteworthy example from Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny: “I take responsibility for this having evolved to what people might imagine it is.”

21 Responses to Non-apologies and their many names

  1. sanseilife says:

    Hey, I just got one of these! Really bummed me out! False apologies are the pits. Thanks for the smile.

  2. I am on my daughter’s case about this all the time (she’s 22). Every time she does something hurtful, she makes these fauxpologies and excuses, as if SHE is the victim of MY oversensitivity. I have told her not to bother “apologizing” that way. In my philosophy, being sincerely apologetic means (1) apologizing in a meaningful way, taking ownership of the offense; (2) promising not to do it again; and (3) NOT DOING IT AGAIN! Ideally it should involve some introspection as well (on the part of the fauxpologizer). I once got so pissed off at my daughter’s BS that I stepped on her foot. She screamed. I said, “Oh, I’m sorry if you felt that was painful.” She looked at me, bewildered. Then I stepped on it again. And fauxpologized again. I mean, it’s in the past, right? What was she so oversensitive about?

  3. Stan says:

    sanseilife: You’re welcome – thanks for reading! False apologies can be worse than nothing.

    bluebird: It’s an emotional quandary, exacerbated by people’s different interpretations of where the problem lies.

  4. jecgenovese says:

    Reblogged this on peakmemory and commented:
    Sorry, but this was too interesting not to reblog.

  5. […] Stan Carey is blogging about that justly condemned act, the non-apology. In 2009, Geoff Pullum described Gordon Brown’s apology to Alan Turing as “a real apology for once”. I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. Here are what Pullum calls the “operative words”: […]

  6. nurn says:

    Stan, thanks for pointing me towards the Lexicon Valley blog. That one’s definitely bookmarked!

  7. This is a difficult topic to comment on, because of the hurtful personal memories it evokes. Obviously I can’t elaborate on that.

    There’s nothing in the article I disagree with, but I do worry that too much of the public discourse about apologies is about how terrible false apologies are, while other principles are neglected.

    It’s easy to agree that false apologies are terrible when the perpetrator is a powerful public figure and most of the victims don’t have a voice at all … but in normal life, apologies are more often things that powerful people demand from less powerful people (e.g. parents from children, teachers from students), and in those circumstances they serve only to exacerbate the imbalance of power in the relationship.

    That is one principle society rarely acknowledges: that people in authority should not abuse their privileges by demanding apologies, but should instead set a good example by apologising when they hurt people less powerful than themselves.

    Another principle is that apologies should be understood as part of a process. Instead of the common attitude of demanding an apology as a first step before further discussion can take place, it is better to gently persuade the other party that one is warranted, making a reasonable case and showing that you have the integrity to listen and acknowledge the ways in which they feel hurt, provoked, and/or misunderstood. If you create an environment where apologies do not need to feel humiliating, everyone wins.

    Everyone talks about the importance of apologising, but where are the people talking about the need to critically examine your own perceived need to be apologised to?

  8. Ah. I’ve not visited here for a while, for which I am profoundly sorry…

  9. Stan says:

    Nurn: You’re welcome! It’s definitely bookmarkable.

    Adrian, I’m sorry I inadvertently brought up unhappy memories for you. I had hoped there was more to my post than just agreeing that false apologies are terrible. You’re right, though, that not enough attention is paid to apologies unreasonably demanded. Some apologies are unwarranted – a point I raised in an early draft of the article but removed because it distracted from the main points I was making, and because it was about psychological/sociological power structures rather than language usage. It certainly deserves focus in its own right.

    Don: You’re welcome back, and there’s no need to be sorry at all.

    • I feel I should clarify that it isn’t the article that evokes unpleasant memories, but the process of composing a comment on the topic. I had to censor myself heavily. And while I think the article covers extremely well-trod ground and hence ever so slightly reinforces a bias in society, I don’t construe that as a criticism of the article. There is, indeed, no obvious way to address that bias from a language usage perspective.

  10. Kathleen McCormick says:

    I think that some people apologize by saying, “I’m sorry”, so frequently that it has become trivialized. People don’t take these words seriously anymore.

    I also think that false apologies are manipulative and have become the norm as American culture is less about truth and more about getting what you want by any means necessary.

    To give an authentic apology requires vulnerability and the willingness to make true reparation. It is a rare and beautiful thing when it happens. We need more of it.

    • So true. One day I was getting kind of upset about an international situation, and I said to my friend, “I’m sorry, but in my opinion…” and I had to halt right there. I looked at her and said, “In fact, I am NOT sorry about my opinion in the least,” etc. I mean, we were not arguing; she agrees with my opinion on this particular subject. I had just had this epiphany, if you will, that I am in the habit, as many people are, of prefacing everything utterance with “I’m sorry, but…” when in fact I am not sorry at all, I am entitled to my opinion, I have done nothing wrong, offended no one (at least no one in listening range), etc. So I am in the process of getting rid of that habit. It is not so much a fauxpology as a bad habit, but needs to be eliminated just the same. Save real apologies for when they are really needed, and don’t use them if they are not real or not needed.

  11. Kathleen McCormick says:

    Oh, great post btw!

  12. Stan says:

    Kathleen: Some people certainly don’t take the words I’m sorry seriously; others on the other hand take them seriously enough to be reluctant to say them. False apologies are manipulative, as you say, and are sadly all too common not just in the US; I hear too many of them here in Ireland.

    bluebird: I think that I’m sorry, but in my opinion and similar phrases are politeness strategies rather than apologies in the sense that I’m describing. They’re a way to maintain social relations and soften the effects of disagreement rather than efforts to make verbal amends for bad behaviour.

    • True, but my point was that it is a reflex, with every comment that MIGHT offend someone being prefaced by this non-apology “I’m sorry.” I know it’ not really as bad as a fauxpology, but it is still misuse/overuse of the “I’m sorry” thing, which really should be reserved for times one is truly sorry. You can say other things, like “I beg to differ,” or some other politeness strategy. Again, in this case my friend was on the same side as I was, and again, it was just reflex.

  13. sincerelytan says:

    You are definitely right! False apologizes are annoying but not worth crying over. I’ve already got such ‘false apology cards’ and I literally threw them away. It cleared space in my mind:)

  14. hearthrose says:

    My favorite term for such non-apologies is the portmanteau coined by NPR’s Linda Holmes in 2011 (in the first paragraph of onomatapology.

    • Stan Carey says:

      hearthrose: Oh, I overlooked that one. Thank you. I like the word “onomatapology” but I find it sounds too pleasant and fun to refer to so negative a thing. Non-apology and company are less euphonic but more derisive.

  15. Shiny says:

    I’ve always known this as a Politician’s Apology

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