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Concourse 2

Expressing apology


Never ruin an apology with an excuse.
Benjamin Franklin


Cultural note

By their nature, many expressions of apology imply the commission of some kind of error.
In many western, Anglophone cultures, people tend admit error quite freely but in other societies, error is something to be ashamed of and rarely admitted casually for fear of loss of face.
This, like many other functions, is an area that needs to be handled with cultural sensitivity and care.  In particular, the first form of apology, identified below, is culturally conditioned in terms of language use.  Some languages have very elaborate gradations of guilt admission and these are hard to translate into English because English relies on a much more limited range of exponents.


Types of apology

In many teaching handbooks, coursebooks and worthy websites, learners are simply presented with a phrase-book approach to expressing apologies.  Such phrases are often classified under headings such as
    Apologising for small things
    Apologising formally
    Apologising in writing
and so on.
While the lists are probably helpful for some teaching purposes, learners need a bit more guidance.  There is more than one sort of apology and how we express it often depends on what sort it is.
Here's short list for you to classify.  What kinds of apology are represented by these 5 sentences?
Click here when you have an answer.

  1. I'm sorry I'm late
  2. I'm sorry to interrupt but ...
  3. I'm sorry to hear about your problems
  4. I'm sorry if you feel upset by what I said (but I stand by it)
  5. I'm sorry.  Can you repeat that, please?

The sort of language used to apologise will depend on the kind of apology which is meant.

In what follows, the assumption is that you know how to present the language of apology and can come up with a range of exponents in English such as

The issue here is not just locating a range of exponents but setting the teaching of them in the context of what sort of apology is meant – i.e., focusing on appropriacy and speaker's intention.


Admission of guilt

I'm so sorry  

This is what most people understand by the term apology.  It's the prototype.  In fact, it's often the only type teachers consider when they come to teaching the function.
Utterances such as
    I'm very sorry for forgetting your birthday
    I'm sorry I broke the glass
    The management apologises for the inconvenience

    I must apologise for forgetting the meeting
come with two important implications:

this kind of apology implies that the speaker / writer would go back and repair the situation if that were possible.  The implied wish is that it had never happened.
this kind of apology often implies a tacit or expressed commitment to ensuring that it will not recur.
Expressions of apology are often explicitly followed by, e.g.
... it won't happen again
... I'll get you another
... we will refund any costs plus 10%

... I'll make sure I check my diary more often

Expressions using Excuse me or Pardon are very rarely appropriate for these types of apology because they do not usually imply any real or sincere regret.  However, the verb apologise and expressions with sorry are frequently used.
If this is not clear to learners, you will encourage stylistic errors such as:
    *Excuse me for breaking the glass
    *Please excuse the management for ...
    *I beg your pardon for forgetting the meeting

and so on.


The pushy apology

Excuse me ... Sorry, Excuse me ... Sorry  

This kind of apology does not carry a sense of guilt or remorse and is just a way to soften the inconvenience caused to others.
The two implications are:

no regret
this kind of apology implies that the speaker / writer would repeat the action if circumstances require it.  There is no implied wish is that it had never happened.
no commitment
this kind of apology does not require any commitment.  In fact, to give one constitutes a pragmatic error such as:
    *Excuse me but I think that's my seat and it won't happen again.

Apologies of this kind rarely use the verbs apologise and regret, although phrases containing sorry, excuse me, forgive me but are common.  For example:


The sympathy apology

I'm sorry you feel so bad  

The sympathy apology also has a number of implications:

the speaker / writer clearly regrets that the situation or event has occurred and wishes that it hadn't or were less serious.
There is a sense of regret but none of remorse.
no responsibility
the speaker takes no personal responsibility for the event or situation.  There is, therefore, no acceptance of guilt at all.  In other words, the speaker is saying,
    I regret this and would change it if I could but it's nothing to do with me.
possible commitment
this kind of apology does not require any commitment but some is often made.  Usually, this involves the use of some modality in offers such as:
    I regret he's upset you.  I'll speak to him about it.
    I'm sorry to hear about that.  Is there anything I can do?
    I'm sorry to hear this.  Would it help if I came with you?

This form of apology has a very limited number of exponents, confined almost to I'm sorry and I regret in fact.
The use of the verb apologise is not appropriate and nor is the use of Excuse me or expressions with pardon.


The conditional or guilt-shifting apology

I'm sorry if you feel like that  

This is a pseudo-apology very often expressed with a structure using if.
It has three implications:

no regret at all
the speaker / writer does not regret that the other person is upset in some way and would act in the same way in the same situation.
reversal of responsibility
the speaker is implying that it is the other person's fault for feeling upset or injured in some way.  This is what is meant by guilt shifting.
no commitment
this kind of apology does not require any commitment from the speaker and to make one results in pragmatic error.  E.g.:
    *I'm sorry I've upset you.  I'll change my opinions immediately
    *I apologise for the inconvenience.  I'll change my behaviour
    *I'm sorry if you don't like the colour of my house.  I'll have it repainted

These expressions frequently carry more than a hint of sarcasm so getting the tone right is important.
The guilt-shift only works with the emphasis on sorry or apologise and with a rising intonation across the whole clause.
If you have a rise-fall pattern across sorry or apologise and have a falling intonation across the clause, the message may be that this really is a guilt-admission apology.  This is how it looks:


is guilt shifting


is guilt accepting

Recognising the tone and the communicative value of what's said is also vital or learners may misinterpret what they hear as a real apology expressing some sense of guilt and respond inappropriately.  For example:

Being able to produce the correct intonation patterns and tone is important, too, or learners may be misinterpreted.  Using a guilt-shifting intonation pattern for what is meant as a real apology may result in serious resentment.  Using guilt-accepting intonation when guilt-shifting tone is required merely results in puzzlement and misunderstanding.

An example:
The following was a headline in The Telegraph, a national British newspaper, referring to the fact that England rugby fans sing an American song to encourage their team:

England rugby anthem 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' is an ignorant expropriation of slave lyrics, say American academics

It should be noted that rugby fans' songs are not famous for being sensitive and politically correct.  The Telegraph quotes an English player, Mako Vunipola, who is of Tongan descent, responding as follows:

If the fans want to sing it then let them sing it, but obviously if people find it offensive then sorry.

He didn't mean sorry at all.  He meant that it is the American academics' fault for feeling upset so the responsibility is reversed and no regret at all is shown.


Apology as a preamble to enquiry or request

Excuse me, can you tell me ...  

This is not a real apology at all, of course.  It is simply a conventional way to introduce an enquiry or request for action.
It implies two things:

no regret at all
the speaker / writer clearly does not regret that the other person is inconvenienced in some way and would do the same if the circumstances arose.
no commitment
this kind of apology implies no commitment to amending one's way in the future and none to making the situation better by any form of recompense.

The verbs apologise and regret are not options in this case although there are alternatives to the common Excuse me ... formulation.  For example:


Responding to apology: interpretive error and the perils of a phrase-book approach

You couldn't help it  

Many phrase-book approaches to this area (in coursebooks and on web sites) provide lists of expressions to use when responding to apology.  For example:

It's easy to see two things:

  1. the phrases have real communicative value and are easy to teach and learn BUT
  2. if learners interpret what they hear incorrectly, they will be in severe danger of responding wholly inappropriately.  All the above are only appropriate in response to one kind of the five sorts of apology we have considered.

In what follows, your task is to decide what sort of apology is being offered and then suggest an appropriate response or two.  Then click on the eye open.

Excuse me for breaking in but isn't that Mary's job?
eye open
Excuse me, is this your suitcase?
eye open
This is apology as an introduction to an enquiry and again requires no formal recognition of its existence at all.  Simply answering the question would be enough.
In some circumstances, it may even be appropriate to respond with an apology such as
    Oh, I'm sorry, I'll get it out of the way.
I'm sorry to hear about John.  Is he getting any better?
eye open
Again, none of the phrase-book suggestions above will do because this is a sympathy apology.
The most appropriate response is one of thanks.
I'm sorry I behaved so badly at the party.  Too much vodka in the punch, I guess!  I'll be more careful in future.
eye open
This is a real apology and admission of both guilt and remorse.  It also contains a commitment.  It is conventional to respond to it all with, e.g.:
    That's all right.  No real harm done.
    I understand but make sure you ask about the punch next time.
    It doesn't matter.  I don't think anyone noticed but you should be more careful.
I apologise if you don't like the way I work but there it is.
eye open


Teaching without a phrase-book approach

As always, context and intention drive meaning and determine the choice of form (the exponent).
It's important to get both of them clear when presenting or practising anything.  This is especially true of this kind of functional language.  If we don't do that, we'll simply encourage things like:

and so on.


Raising awareness

This is such an obvious language function that most learners have not given much thought to the fact that there are different ways of apologising and different reasons for doing so.  The first step, therefore, is to raise awareness.

Simple exercises such as which response goes with which apology are good places to start.  For example,
Draw lines between the response and the statement:

Statement   Response
I'm sorry to hear about your illness.   That's OK but don't let it happen again.
Excuse me, is this the way to the shopping centre? Well, it is a bit strange.
I'm sorry I'm late.  I missed the bus. Thanks.
I'm sorry can I get through here, please? No, you need to go back to the top of the hill.
I apologise if you don't like my haircut. (Person moves)

Exercises like this, which can be longer and more challenging as well as having multiple possible right / wrong solutions to discuss, alert learners to the types of apology that are possible and the sorts of responses which are appropriate.



When presenting apologies and responses, which is often done via a written dialogue, audio tape or video clip, it's important to get the intention of the speaker right.

A simple way to present this is:

Speaker 1 Speaker 2
Wants to interrupt a conversation.  What does he say?
A: I apologise for this.  I won't do it again
B: I'm sorry to break in.
C: I beg your pardon
Does not want the interruption to happen.  She says:
A: That's OK but it's not very helpful.
B: Please don't apologise.
A: Not just now, please.

and so on



If the groundwork has been laid and people can distinguish between the main types of apology and the appropriate responses, you can get on to some practice.

Idea 1:

Role cards are very helpful.  For example:

You have broken your friend's favourite tea mug You have just been told some bad news by a friend You have forgotten someone's name
You are angry that someone has criticised how you dress You want to ask a question at reception You have lost your keys and want to know if anyone's seen them
You've used the last of the milk in the kitchen Your boss wants you to work late but you don't have time You need to get to the window seat on the plane

Idea 2:

Visuals which present the situation clearly are helpful but the role relationship needs to be made clear as it is in the cards above.

What have you done?
What are you going to do?
How do you apologise? What's the reply?

There are many opportunities in the classroom for the real use of apologies (lateness, interrupting, asking questions, hearing bad news etc.).
Not to take advantage of those for on-the-spot teaching and correction would be perverse, wouldn't it?

There's a mini-test to check you have all this.

Related guides
expressing cause and effect when people apologise and accept guilt, they often provide a cause-effect excuse
expressing emotion how sorry one is is something quite difficult to express in English
pragmatics for a general guide to making meaning
the function index for more in the area
a lesson for learners which is based on the analysis made here and is at B1 / B2 level

Some of the above is based on ideas in Kramer-Moore, D and Moore,2003 M, Pardon me for breathing: Seven Types of Apology, in A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 60, No. 2, pp. 160-169, Institute of General Semantics
The Telegraph, 08/03/17