Academic journal article British and American Studies

Why Sometimes Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

Academic journal article British and American Studies

Why Sometimes Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

At a time when such accredited researchers as Goffman, Searle, Brown and Levinson or Borkin and Reinhart were writing specialist articles on apologizing as a remedial interchange, a ritualistic act or part of the politeness phenomena, a memorable song by Elton John was delighting audiences on either side of the Atlantic, proclaiming in the very title that "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word".

By the time I decided to write a paper on apologizing, I had begun contemplating the suitability of such a title for a larger academic enterprise. What prompted me all this was the realization of the inherent pragmatic ambiguity in the well-known title mentioned above. In other words, why and how does "sorry" seem to be the hardest word?

In my opinion, a fairly complete attempt at dealing with apology should be structured around five aspects or problems, which could bear elliptical headings, meant to complete the main title and solve the pragmatic ambiguity in it. These headings would be as follows:

- .. .to say right;

- .. .to sound sincere about;

- .. .to accept;

- .. .to say across cultures;

- translate.

Only the first and the last two aspects will be dealt with in this paper.

In all these situations the word sorry and the expression I'm sorry are used in a generically apologetic sense, although other strategic uses masquerading as apologies will be mentioned as well.

2. say right

In the light of the clarifications above, this section is about performing the speech act of apologizing in a pragmatically correct, i.e. felicitous way.

According to Austin (1962:152), apologizing can be included in a class which he calls, not without some reservation, "behabitives", a miscellaneous group which is to do with attitudes, feelings and social behaviour. Also included here are congratulating, commending, condoling, cursing and challenging. Although he does not refer specifically to apologies (but to promises in fact), I can think of parallel examples of infelicities, which Austin calls "self-stultifying procedures", in the following cases:

* I apologize but I did not do it.

* I apologize but I will not behave accordingly.


* I apologize but I do not feel any remorse.

Austin (1962:161) does admit, however, that in the field of behabitives, besides the usual liability to infelicities, there is a special scope for insincerity. More interestingly, he finds obvious connections between behabitives and the class of commissives without, again, referring to apologies. Isolating this specific act, I could say that apologizing is indeed both about reacting to behaviour and committing oneself to a line of conduct.

It is also worth mentioning, in view of some later distinctions, that Austin indicates a weakening of the performative illocutionary force from I apologize (an explicit performative) to I am sorry (a half descriptive, impure expression) and finally to I repent, which he calls descriptive. This is indeed consistent with the notion that the expression I'm sorry often counts as an admission of sorrow rather than one of culpability, responsibility or guilt.

Searle (1979) includes apologies in the class of expressives, along with thanking, congratulating, condoling, deploring and welcoming, where the corresponding performative verbs "express the psychological state specified in the sincerity condition about a state of affairs specified in the propositional content" (1979:15).

In keeping with Searle's felicity conditions for the class of expressives, I propose the following conditions:

1. the content condition: past act A done by S;

2. the preparatory condition: S believes that A is an offence against H;

3. the sincerity condition: S regrets act A;

4. the essential condition: counts as an apology for act A.

I shall only discuss the infelicities which may occur under the first two conditions. …

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