A non-apology of the first kind

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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 for
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:

"A tin ear", 5/6/2004", 5/6/2004
"Air quotes and non-apologies", 7/4/2006
"Apologize already", 9/18/2006
"'Sorry' spectacles", 4/16/2007
"Spitzer limps through a public apology", 7/30/2007

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.


  1. Karen said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 7:09 am

    But she did say "MY referencing", which seems to me to take the statement closer to being an apology. It's still more of a "you people got offended" than a "I offended you", but then again, I'm quite sure she didn't mean to imply that Obama might be killed. Still, "I'm sorry for my referencing X which offended people" would have been better.

  2. Peter said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 7:51 am

    I think a speaker who has uttered (intentionally or not) a statement which causes offence to others has a number of rhetorical strategies in response to subsequent calls for an apology. He or she can:

    – remain silent
    – express no regrets (and implicitly or explicitly, reiterate the statement)
    – express regret for making the initial statement
    – express regret for any offence caused by the initial statement
    – express regret that some hearers took offence at the initial statement (an expression of regret which may be an intended as an implicit criticism of the hearer)
    – express regret that the initial statement has been misinterpreted or misreported in such a way that offence was caused by the statement
    – express regret that the initial statement has been misinterpreted or misreported in such a way that some hearers took offence at the statement.

    There are no doubt others responses. Arguably, many of the recent "apologies" uttered by public figures in recent years in response to inital statements they made which caused offence to others are in these latter response categories (one may call them jesuitical without necessarily expressing disapproval of them). Recent examples include the "apologies" issued following statements by the Archbishop of Canterbury (who was reported to have called for Sharia Law to be introduced in Britain), and Pope Benedict 16 (who was reported to have argued that Islam is irrational).

  3. Tim said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 9:41 am

    Actually, it's a sorry statement of the fourth kind, the hypothetical apology.

    I think the statement should be parsed as:

    "I regret that if my referencing … was in any way offensive, I certainly didn't mean that"

    Here the speaker is expressing regret for the possibility that their actions may have had consequences they didn't intend, without actually admitting or admitting that that is the case.

    As in, "I regret that if a bullet from my gun struck someone, I didn't intend to hurt anyone"

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 10:44 am

    @Tim: I'm sorry, but I suspect you didn't mean what you wrote.

    "I regret that [A implies B]" is not a hypothetical apology, it's an expression of regret for a conditional.

  5. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 10:58 am

    > Or maybe sorry has developed an if-complement, as in structures like "I wonder if …" or "I don't know if … ".

    Well, this would be a bit different, since "I wonder if …" ="I wonder whether …" and "I don't know if …" ="I don't know whether …"; that is, they're using interrogative content clauses. I think "I'd prefer if …" (discussed in Geoff Pullum's post "Strange ifs of the third kind") is a bit closer.

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 11:55 am

    @Ran Ari-Gur: Yes, exactly. I should have remembered Geoff's post on this.

  7. felix culpa said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

    Haven’t followed the links yet, as I must, but my immediate reaction may have in fact little to do with linguisitics and thus fail fleshing out from those sources.
    Either way I hope to throw my pennies into the pond and find ripples lapping at my interest.
    My question revolves around the degree to which (Sen. Clinton’s) statements may offer insight into her intent.

    I have a general sense that in psychoanalysis phrasings, word choice, or inflection are understood as reliable indicators of (unconscious) intention.
    The pertinent background to my question lies in a ‘divilog’ at bloggingheads in which Ellen Ladowsky, a trained therapist, picks some intriguing and indeed disturbing threads from the infamous Tuzla story. She concludes Sen. Clinton betrayed the existence of an inner drama of a sort commonly hidden from the public eye, in which she, Clinton, is forever subject to sniper fire as both victim and hero. Ladowsky subsequently published a post on May 2nd at HuffPo.

    Thus, my question: Are there formalized, reliable linguistic indicators understood as revealing underlying, well, call them fantasies?
    Quite likely linguistics can only go so far in such areas, but the valuable points raised in your post suggest such a possibility.

  8. John Roth said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

    I think stepping back a bit and looking at the context might be useful.

    As far as I can tell, the political fact is that if Sen. Obama is unable to complete the primary season for any reason whatsoever, Sen. Clinton would get the nomination by default. Hence his hypothetical failure to complete the primary season is not a reason for her to continue campaigning.

    In other words, Hanlon's Razor applies: "Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity."

    The linguistic analysis is interesting, but, I think, besides the point. Sen. Clinton appears to be fishing for reasons to continue pursuing what appears to be a lost cause.

    John Roth

  9. felix culpa said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

    Ah, John, but fishing in a pond clearly understood to be devoid of fish?

    To quote myself on the relevant thread at Obsidian Wings, “It only serves to reinforce the issue of her not taking responsibility for her statements and her campaign.
    This is not normally something much admired in a leader, nor desirable in the least.
    Nor is evidence of a leader being so wrapped up in an interior fantasy that what most rely on as ‘reality’ seems in the eyes of said leader to be a distant mirage, unworthy of attention.’”

    Given the tissues of blindness the Senator has tried to draw across the stage to mask her irresponsibility, giving her the benefit of the doubt seems to me willful blindness itself, wishful thinking, and a dangerous misestimation of her abilities.

    But perhaps this is too far afield from the discipline of linguistics.
    Or perhaps not at all.

  10. Dan T. said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

    Why is she giving her speeches (and non-apologies) in supermarkets, anyway?

  11. pc said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 5:21 pm

    ….the offense caused by implying that she hopes that her opponent might be killed…..the implication that she should stay in the race in case her opponent is killed.

    On the other hand, mainstream media and Clinton's opposition have been demonstrating the desire for her body in a coffin, underwater, or dismembered for the last two months (longer, really), so it's not as if she has escaped being the target of public death wishes, and usually not even inadvertent ones. See. Not that they came from Obama or his campaign of course, and not that it excuses her comment, but it's worth noting so long as people are getting outraged about some assassination innuendo that she didn't (seem to) even mean to make. (So far as I know Obama's campaign has never chastised anyone for implying or outright stating that Clinton should die.)

  12. word2thewyz said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 8:14 am

    Wow, PC Said, twisting this incident into an attack against Obama requires a dexterity that confounds the human anatomy. I am not aware of anyone – certainly not an opposing presidential candidate – "implying or outright stating that Clinton should die," so how can you attack Obama for not responding to something that hasn't happened?

    Actually, equating a wish that Clinton would step down from the race to a wish that she would be killed may say more about your perspective, or Hillary's, than it does about anyone else.Are you saying that, if she isn't running, she's dead? What a terrible commentary on a person's ambition. On the Republican side, Neither Romney nor Huckabee seemed to consider calls for them to step aside be a threat on their lives or, for that matter, sexist.

    But back to Obama's failure to address non-existent Hillary death wishes from other candidates – one reason he hasn't mentioned it is that it is generally considered a prudent course of action for presidential candidates to altogether avoid any discussion of assassination, unless they are expressing their sympathies to a bereaved family.

  13. nick galanis said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 11:59 am

    suggestion for future analysis: more interesting than political non-apology I believe is the political non-denial.

  14. nick galanis said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

    here's an example:

  15. Janice Huth Byer said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

    Of the statement of Hillary's that's closest to being an apology, Mark rightly observes: "This isn't a well-formed sentence."

    Considering her statement was prepared, it seems to validate George Orwell's warning in his 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language" that insincerity is the enemy of clarity.

  16. dr pepper said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 4:00 pm

    Hmm, i guess i must be more naive than i thought. I didn't hear Clinton's remarks as any kind of wish. I thought she had just clumsily extended her list of candidates who had not dropped out by June to include RFK. And what she meant was something like "..and Robert Kennedy didn't drop out either, you may remember that he was still campaigning when he was shot– that was in June".

  17. Cihan Baran said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 6:06 pm

    Is it that important that she never really "apologized"?

    I mean, she made some unclear remarks and a vast majority of the US media interpreted her as saying that she apologized. For instance, see here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/25/opinion/25dowd.html?em&ex=1211860800&en=43b443e1c5d50eb2&ei=5087

    If one thinks that apologies perform social functions and therefore what is an apology is settled by what the great majority of the community interpret as an apology, then I don't see how she got away without an apology.

  18. KRS-1 said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 6:40 pm

    Dan T., not because they are nicer venues for non-apologies. The cash-strapped campaign is having a hard time being extended credit to hold events at the usual political venues. The flatbed was more about funding than authenticity of working-class roots.

  19. khereva said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

    Not naive, dr pepper; the term is disingenuous.

    She's made these statements repeatedly.

  20. Janice Huth Byer said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 2:23 am

    Cihan Baran, you point is spot on. She gratified older Democrats like me by agreeing , in essence, not to make further illustrative or calculating use of dead Kennedys. Plus, she contacted the Kennedys, which was none of my business, but nice of her. What she said was factually true, and as a matter of principle, politicians should never be called upon to regret the truth, no matter how raw, imo.

    I am perturbed at the Washington Post, my hometown paper, for trumpeting on its homepage for 24 hours, the misinformation that she apologized, ("Clinton says she's sorry for remark about RFKjr" ) that made her an instant martyr in the blogosphere, with Obama once again unfairly cast as too sensitive to be president, when in fact he rejected the bait. There's a media pattern of this shifting of blame to Obama for Clinton's mistakes.

  21. Janice Huth Byer said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 2:46 am

    P.S. I'm very grateful for Mr. Liberman and Language Log for the clarity and attention they bring to the misapprehenision of apologies in the media.

  22. Carl Brutananadilewski said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 1:17 pm

    I don't know if it makes a difference from a linguistic perspective but this is the fourth time that Senator Clinton has mentioned the RFK assassination regarding why she should continue campaigning. They have all been documented over at Daily Kos so this wasn't some accidental fact that slipped into her conversation because she had already said it three times prior to this incident that somehow blossomed into a mini-media firestorm. That also dispels her "I've had the Kennedys on my mind because of Ted's tragedy" story as those earlier references occurred before the horrible brain tumor revelation. Perhaps she will now tell us she was having psychic visions of the tumor and that it was weighing heavily on her mind during those three previous statements?

  23. Jorel said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

    One flubbing of a line or a joke or a statement can be attributed to many innocuous reasons… but twice indicates intention.

    This assassination-by-implication remark from Clinton was a more specific version of something she said months ago::

    NBC/NJ's Mike Memoli notes that Clinton said something similar the day after the Indiana and North Carolina primaries. "Sometimes you gotta calm people down a little bit. But if you look at successful presidential campaigns, my husband did not get the nomination until June of 1992," she said. "I remember tragically when Senator Kennedy won California near the end of that process."

    Apparently, no rabid, basement-dwelling loners picked up on her subtle cue that time, so she had to make it abundantly clear this time around as the race is drawing to a close and she is still losing.

  24. Jordan said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

    In other words, she's not sorry she said it. She's sorry that people were offended by it. There's the difference.

  25. Kat said,

    May 29, 2008 @ 2:50 am

    Professor Liberman: Would you differentiate between "I'm sorry for angering/hurting/offending you" and "I'm sorry for doing what I did"?

    To me, the first sounds less like a direct apology because the the speaker is sorry only because s/he caused an undesirable reaction. The second actually apologizes for the action. In other words, the first seems like the statement of a person at Kohlberg's first state of moral development (punishment avoidance), while the second implies the third stage (a conscience).

    Jordan (May 26th, 4:12 pm) said essentially the same thing. I'm just wondering how it fits into the classification in the post.

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