A non-apology for the ages

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David Fahrenthold, "Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005", The Washington Post 10/7/2016:

Donald Trump bragged in vulgar terms about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women during a 2005 conversation caught on a hot microphone, saying that “when you’re a star, they let you do it,” according to a video obtained by The Washington Post.

Jeremy Diamond, "Trump bragged on hot mic about being able to grope women", CNN 10/7/2016:

And the remarks prompted Trump — for the first time in his nearly 16-month campaign — to apologize.

"This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course – not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended," Trump said in a statement released Friday.

As we and others have pointed out many times, saying "I'm sorry if anyone was offended", or even "I apologize if anyone was offended", is not really an apology:

"Pete Rose and Sorry Statements of the Third Kind", 1/13/2004
"Air Quotes and Non-Apologies", 7/4/2006
"The art of the (non-) apology", 9/1/2008

For something approximating (but not quite reaching?) a real apology, see Michael Grynbaum and John Koblin, "Billy Bush Says He’s Ashamed by Lewd Talk With Donald Trump", NYT 10/7/2016:

Mr. Bush issued a statement on Friday evening, writing: “Obviously I’m embarrassed and ashamed. It’s no excuse, but this happened 11 years ago — I was younger, less mature, and acted foolishly in playing along.”

Update — this event has plowed new ground in the New York Times' definition of language "fit to print":


See also Ben Zimmer, "A banner day for profanity", Strong Language 10/8/2016, and the NYT transcript, where "fuck", "bitch", and "pussy" are all reproduced without bowdlerization.

Update #2 — A later statement from Donald Trump, in video form:

And a line-by-line analysis — Chris Cillizza, "Here's what Donald Trump really meant when he apologized Friday night", Washington Post 10/8/2016.

Plus the Sassy Trump version:


Update #3:

Asawin Suebsaeng, "Donald Trump Tried to Fire Nancy O’Dell After She Rejected His Sexual Advances", The Daily Beast 10/7/2016.



  1. Y said,

    October 7, 2016 @ 10:10 pm

    In 1993, the Bobbitt affair, so grotesque it could not be ignored, made the word penis printable. As Joel Achenbach put it,
    "The male organ had always been an unmentionable, the word too graphic and specific, simultaneously clinical and lurid. With the Bobbitt case, the penis now gambols freely along the avenues of public discourse, a precocious intruder into polite conversation, and there may be no way to make it go back whence it came."

  2. D.O. said,

    October 7, 2016 @ 10:31 pm

    This pseudo-apology even doesn't make sense. Who could possibly be offended? Mr. Bush? Whoever made the recording? It was made public not by Mr. Trump and he cannot be responsible for someone being offended as a result of the actions of others. He could have apologized for objectifying women or for his less than chivalrous behavior, but apparently it's OK with him at least as long as he can drag Mr. Clinton into it as well.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 7, 2016 @ 10:41 pm

    The version of Billy Bush's apology at this Washington Post article ends with "I'm very sorry," which I think makes it a real apology.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    October 7, 2016 @ 10:57 pm

    As we and others have pointed out many times, saying "I'm sorry if anyone was offended", or even "I apologize if anyone was offended", is not really an apology

    I don't think I agree with this. How does it differ from this one?

    If you're just joining us, we're here with <D-list celebrity> talking about <their ghostwritten book>.

    You've got an apodosis expressing a message that's unconditionally true, and a protasis expressing who the message is directed at.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 12:31 am

    Presumably because he was advised that his initial statement did not seem to be doing the trick, Mr. Trump has now released a differently-worded statement which, if taken at face value, meets more and perhaps all of the linguistic criteria for a full formal non-hedged apology. It is possible, of course, that it will not be considered sincere by a skeptical/hostile audience. (I have seen one social-media reference to the videotaped version of the new statement as resembling a "hostage video," presumably implying that Mr. Trump appeared to be reading words put in his mouth by his captors which he did not personally believe.) But he has moved off the lexical indicators of a non-apology.

  6. Rubrick said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 12:45 am

    News events often prompt temporary loosening of journalistic standards of politeness, but they have a tendency to tighten up again. In 2004 an important story about a porn actress contracting HIV led to major news outlets rather startlingly using the term "double-anal", but I'm pretty sure it didn't get added to their list of "things it's okay to say from now on".

  7. D.O. said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 12:46 am

    Count me as skeptical/hostile audience. The statement talks briefly about apology and then wears off to the "important issues" one of which is apparently Bill Clinton's behavior. I am glad he didn't bring up Trump stakes.

  8. Michael Watts said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 3:39 am

    Going through the three old LL posts referenced, I notice that GKP's definition (in the first link) of an "apology" excludes, for example, "I'm sorry I was so mean to you; I was a different person then". I find that surprising. It actually conflicts with the third link's representation of what a genuine apology looks like, "I'm sorry that I was insensitive to your feelings and that I insulted you".

    The second link involves an apology that is perfectly well formed by any standard thus far expressed, except that it has been sabotaged by the apologizer's use of scare quotes: 'I will apologize to the people I "offended" because I should have used another word.' Scare quotes carry the message that you don't believe in whatever you're modifying them with.

    And I'm pretty sure that's the entirety of what people mean when they say "that's not a real apology" — they mean "he said it, but he didn't mean it". The particular words, and the choice of syntactic structure (I'm sorry for… vs I'm sorry that…), are beside the point, and don't affect whether something is an apology or not.

  9. DaveK said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 8:54 am

    Didn't the NY Times break this ground a few years ago when they printed the full name of the Russian protest group Pussy Riot?

  10. Jenadina said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 8:59 am

    Michael, the problem with "I'm sorry I was so mean to you; I was a different person then" is that it ends with a justification of the behavior. I fail to see how this conflicts with the 3rd representation, which is an apology for being insensitive as well as being insulting, but includes no reason for the actions. In my experience, any form of "I'm sorry, but…" is taken as being insincere. The first apology in this comment simply replaces the 'but' with a semicolon.

  11. chris said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 9:59 am

    If you're just joining us, we're here with (D-list celebrity) talking about (their ghostwritten book).

    That seems like a biscuit conditional to me. I have a hard time reading "I apologize if anyone was offended" the same way: if nobody was offended, he really wouldn't be apologizing. And it implies genuine uncertainty about whether anyone at all was offended, which seems hard to believe in this case given the content of the video.

    "I apologize to anyone who was offended" seems more genuine to me; not apologizing to the people who weren't offended (because why would you) but at the same time acknowledging that the set of offended people is non-empty and deserves an apology.

    In both cases, though, I think the use of the passive in an agency-obscuring way makes it less effective as an apology: compare "I apologize to anyone I offended". You can't simultaneously weasel and apologize.

  12. Robert Coren said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 10:34 am

    I can't prove this, but I have a memory of a decades-ago article in The Boston Globe describing an altercation between two members of the Boston City Council, in which each was quoted as calling the other "a fucking asshole". I have never seen either word in the Globe before or since, and I suspect some editor got spanked for letting that one through.

  13. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 11:13 am

    Whatever the syntax, I don't think that semantically "I apologize if anyone was offended" is very different from "I apologize to whoever was offended." (Shades of "if you are just joining us…") But I also think that a lot of people find Trump's language offensive without necessarily being personally offended by it. The people most likely to feel offended are those of his supporters who think of themselves as good Christians or Judaists and who set store by their religion's sexual norms, and those are the people Trump is apologizing to, so as not to lose their votes.

  14. Ellen K. said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 11:34 am

    It seems to me a proper apology requires making clear what one is apologizing for. And I would say Trumps statement doesn't do that. He seems to be expressing regret that it became public, without expressing regret for anything he personally did.

  15. Charles Antaki said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 11:55 am

    Whether the apology is "to those who have been" or "if anyone has been" still implies in either case that the offended person is personally offended, perhaps touchy and over-sensitive. (They may even have a chip on their shoulder.)
    But some things (at any one time) are presumably offensive in and of themselves, and even though of course they offend (someone), it's that in-it-self offensiveness that needs to be apologised for. Using the N-word for example (in this sort of context) doesn't require the user knowing any individual person being offended by it – it's offensive tout court. So the form of words Trump should use is "That was offensive, and I'm sorry I said it". But one doubts he will.

  16. Rebecca said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 12:31 pm

    One would expect an apology in this case (sincere or otherwise) to focus on any of three things:

    (1) people being offended
    (2) using vulgar and/or offensive language
    (3) sexually assaulting people

    The big problem with his apology, in my mind, is that it hovers between (1) and (2) and never approaches apologizing for – or denying – (3).

  17. John said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 2:39 pm

    This is something that doesn't seem to come up much in discussions of non-apologies, to the extent that I wonder if it's just a personal gripe: I find that, all else being equal, "I apologise" sounds less sincere than "I'm sorry". Perhaps because the use of a pseudo performative speech act evokes the "apology-as-magic-spell" fallacy. "You want an apology? Fine, "I apologise." There, now quit whining."

    "I'm sorry," while just as possible to say insincerely, at least requires an expression of vulnerability of the kind that people like Trump seem especially allergic to. I almost can't imagine the words coming out of his mouth.

    I suppose the downside of "I'm sorry" is that it has to be followed with a full stop to count. "I'm sorry if…" immediately runs into ambiguity — it can just mean "It's a damn shame if…" rather than being an apology at all. "I'm sorry if your dog got run over, I'm sorry if you were born with such a thin skin, I'm sorry if you woke up on the wrong side of bed this morning and I'm sorry if you were offended."

  18. Ellen K. said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 3:49 pm


    "I'm sorry for my actions", "I'm sorry that I…".

    Doesn't need to be followed by a full stop, seems to me.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 5:06 pm

    Coby Lubliner: Whatever the syntax, I don't think that semantically "I apologize if anyone was offended" is very different from "I apologize to whoever was offended."

    But it is different from "I apologize to everyone who was offended—and obviously that's a lot of people." And that's different from "I was wrong," which Trump said in his second apology.

    Jenadina: Michael, the problem with "I'm sorry I was so mean to you; I was a different person then" is that it ends with a justification of the behavior.

    I don't see that as a justification. In fact, it implies that the person now sees that the meanness was unjustified.

  20. Graeme said,

    October 8, 2016 @ 8:39 pm

    Though I alternate between loathing and giggling at the bloke, I'm not sure what an apology would mean here. I suspect his antagonists want him to apologise for being who he is. Which no self respecting person let alone political figure would do.

  21. Stan Carey said,

    October 9, 2016 @ 7:14 am

    Interesting thread of tweets here describing Trump's non-apology as an "eerie replica of psychological manipulations made by abusers after episodes of abuse".

  22. BZ said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 12:14 pm

    What is odd to me is that in yesterday's debate, he did something crucial only when asked point blank that would really have made a lot of difference in his attempts to apologize. He said he hadn't actually done the things he claimed to have done in the tape, that he never actually committed sexual assault. Although he seemed to imply this (by contrasting himself to Bill Clinton), it is puzzling why this admission had to be dragged out of him like this. Unfortunately, none of the reasons I can come up with are good. Either apologizing is so foreign to him that he really has no idea how to do it, or he is reluctant to be on record claiming that he never committed assault in the fear of being proven wrong.

  23. Ted Chang said,

    October 11, 2016 @ 4:19 pm

    What good is an apology for if not rooted from sincerity? Trump is apparently missing out on the big picture. Even people who don't speak the language can figure it out! As a citizen of this county, I can't say I'm at all convinced. If this man wins, I can only say that everyone should just go and run for the hills.

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