While discussing Clinton’s non-apology over the RFK incident Mark Liberman of Language Log references a post, Pete Rose and sorry statements of the third kind, by Geoff Pullman regarding the usage of the word “sorry”:
People aren’t being sufficiently sensitive to the grammar of the adjective sorry.
It should be clear that an apology has to be in the first person, and in the present tense. But it is not enough to utter something in thefirst person that has sorry as the head of an adjective phrase predicative complement. 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.
Liberman furthers the analysis when he looks at the “I’m sorry if…” syntax:
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).
Given how often non-privileged groups are subject to non-apology “apologies” after being subject to sexism, racism, and other oppressive behaviours (Harlan Ellison, anyone?), both Pullman’s and Liberman’s posts strike me as a useful resource for pointing out exactly why those so-called apologies fall so far short of the mark.