The news is full of headlines about Senator Clinton's "apology" for her tone-deaf comment about the RFK assassination: "Clinton apologizes for citing RFK killing"; "Clinton apologizes for gaffe"; "Clinton apologizes for Kennedy comment"; "Clinton Sorry for Remark about RFK Assassination"; "Clinton sorry for Kennedy remark"; and hundreds of others.
But from a linguistic point of view, these headlines are wrong. Here's the evidence:
Geoff Pullum's classic post "Pete Rose and sorry statements of the third kind" (1/13/2004) offered a taxonomy of apologies, based on a pairing of syntactic structures and communicative content:
The word sorry is used in three ways.
First, sorry can be used with a complement having the form of what The Cambridge Grammar calls a content clause:
(1) I'm sorry that the the political situation in the Holy Land is still mired in violence, because I wanted to go to Bethlehem at Christmas.
If I utter (1), I am not apologizing; I have never caused or defended any of the violence in the Middle East. It's not my fault. I just regret that the situation persists. This use can constitute an apology (as Jonathan Wright reminded me when he read the first version of this post), but only when the content clause subject is first person as well: I'm sorry I hit you is an apology, but I'm sorry you were hit is not, so watch for that subject.
Second, sorry can be used with a preposition phrase headed by for with a complement noun phrase denoting a sentient creature:
(2) I'm sorry for that poor little kitten, which seems to have figured out how to climb up a tree without having any idea how to get down.
If I utter (2), I am not apologizing; I never suggested to the stupid kitten that it should climb fifty feet up into a beech tree. I'm just expressing sympathy, as a fellow mammal, for its present plight.
And third, sorry can be used with a preposition phrase headed by for where the preposition has as its complement a subjectless gerund-participial clause or a noun phrase denoting an act:
(3) a. I'm sorry for doing what I did; I behaved like an utter pig, and you have a right to be angry.
(3) b. I'm sorry for my actions last night; I should never have acted that way and I want you to forgive me.
Only this third kind of use can constitute an apology, as opposed to a statement of regret about the truth of a proposition or a statement of sympathy for a fellow creature.
And here's a transcription of what Senator Clinton said:
um I you know regret that if uh my referencing
uh that moment of trauma for our entire nation, and particularly for the Kennedy family
uh was in any way offensive.
uh I certainly had no
uh intention of that whatsoever.
MY view is that
uh we have to
look to the past, and to
our leaders, who have inspired us, and
uh give us uh
a lot to live up to,
uh and I'm
honored to hold Senator Kennedy's seat in the United States Senate,
from the state of New York,
uh and have the highest
uh the entire Kennedy family.
She uses the word regret rather than sorry, so that the syntactic side of Geoff's taxonomy needs to be adjusted a bit — but not much, since what she says is of the form "I regret that <sentence>", which is clearly a sorry statement of type 1.
But the sentential complement of regret in her statement continues in a curious way:
"I regret that if my referencing that moment of trauma … was in any way offensive."
This isn't a well-formed sentence. It appears to result from blending a sentence using regret with one using sorry:
"I regret that my referencing that moment of trauma … was in any way offensive"
"I'm sorry if my referencing that moment of trauma … was in any way offensive."
The "sorry if" pattern is a syntactic structure that Geoff didn't include in his taxonomy. It might be a form of the conditional "If my referencing … was in any way offensive, (then) I'm sorry", with the apodosis put in front of the protasis. Or maybe sorry has developed an if-complement, as in structures like "I wonder if …" or "I don't know if … ".
In any case, from a communicative and emotional point of view, Senator Clinton's sentence clearly belongs with Geoff's sorry statements of the first kind. And in fact "If my remarks were in any way offensive, I'm sorry" is even weaker than "I'm sorry that my remarks were in any way offensive", since it doesn't even grant that it's a fact that the remarks were in any way offensive.
We should also note that being sorry for causing offense is itself a rather weak form of sorriness, since it doesn't necessarily imply being sorry for the actions or words that caused the offense. It's perfectly appropriate to take a stance like "I'm sorry for offending you, but what I said was true and had to be said." Senator Clinton didn't go so far as to express regret for having referenced the RFK assassination, only for the fact that referencing it might have caused offense (and only, she feels, because it was misinterpreted).
Of course, the offense caused by mentioning a national trauma (and piling woes on the Kennedy family) was small compared to the offense caused by implying that she hopes that her opponent might be killed. I don't think that she meant any such thing, at least consciously, but a lot of people took it that way.
There have been many other LL posts on the linguistic analysis of apologies — you can find a sample here. Some especially useful links:
I particularly recommend Geoff Nunberg's analysis of politicians' apology rituals in his 2006 post "Apologize already", where he observes in connection with some earlier episodes in "the contemporary theater of contrition" that:
If their remarks failed as sincere apologies, they still satisfied a social purpose. In the contemporary theater of contrition, the point of ritualistic public apologies isn't to demonstrate that an offender is really, truly sorry, but only that public opinion has the power to exact the expression of self-abnegation (or in Goffman's terms, self-splitting) that's inherent in a formal apology.
Does anybody really care whether Pat Robertson was genuinely remorseful about suggesting that Hugo Chavez should be assassinated, or whether Charles Stimson felt a pang of conscience after attacking the lawyers representing the Guantanamo detainees? Sometimes, the more insincere and grudging a nonapology is, the better it makes the point: it doesn't matter whether you're really sorry — if you say this kind of stuff, you're going to have to go out there and take it back
From this perspective, an important part of the public ritual of political apology is the question of which feelings of offense (however allegedly misguided) the politician feels compelled to mention. The apologizer's goal is to cite the narrowest possible range of offended people and reasons for offense. Thus it's not an accident that Senator Clinton mentioned the feelings of the Kennedy family and others about mentioning RFK's assassination, but not the feelings of those who were shocked by the implication that she should stay in the race in case her opponent is killed.