Non-apologies and their many names

November 21, 2014

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.”

Real estate lingo, and the sorriest apologies

May 28, 2012

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, excerpted below.

The unreality of real estate language was prompted by the amusing hyperbole of property ads, where ordinary lawns are “magnificent”, rooms are “filled with natural light”, and dreams lie forever on your doorstep. It is a world where

medium is ‘large’, average is ‘first rate’, and unusual is ‘extraordinary’. Any site that isn’t a ruined shack sinking into a swamp may be described as ‘superb’. A well-maintained building is ‘stunning’ and ‘fabulous’, a better-than-average view ‘must be seen to be believed’, and everywhere but the most dilapidated neighbourhoods are in a ‘most sought after location’. (Hyphens, unlike typos, are often scarce in these ads.)

The comments offer such phrases as “deceptively spacious” and “compact and bijou” as further examples of this less-than-reliable repackaging of reality. You can read the rest here.


Apologies are being expressed – or are they? examines the possible differences between saying “I’m sorry” and “Apologies” (and variations thereon):

Authentic remorse tends to be effectively communicated so long as sincere effort is made through tone, gesture, penitent behaviour and so on. But the words, as an explicit admission of wrongdoing or shortcoming, can be an important part of reconciliation. . . .

Because it omits the subject, ‘Apologies’ is somewhat disembodied and abstract, a bit like saying ‘Mistakes were made’ instead of ‘I/We made a mistake.’ It can be personalised, for example as ‘My (sincere) apologies’, but this feels formal – at least to me – whereas ‘I’m sorry’ does not. Omission of the subject is why the passive voice is not best suited to apologising . . .

It’s a very subjective area, of course, and “I’m sorry” can be as sarcastic as “Apologies” can be sincere – which is partly why it’s so interesting. The comments from other people helped to develop the discussion beyond my hunches and experiences. I didn’t use corpus data in arriving at my cautious conclusions – for which, my apologies.