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No Apology Needed for "Sorry About That"

A few weeks after his racist remarks went public, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling did an interview with Anderson Cooper to apologize. Much of his "apology" consisted of a bizarre personal attack on Magic Johnson. It might be the worst apology of all-time.

All apologies are difficult and complex, but the stakes get higher when an apology, like Sterling's, is public. Such apologies often raise questions. Was the apology done in a timely manner? Is the person sincerely sorry or just sorry they got caught? Are they trying to right a wrong or salvage a reputation? Does the apology accept blame or dodge it? Public apologies multiply the trickiness by a gazillion (and despite that trickiness, most do considerably better than Sterling).

If you have any interest in apologies, language as performance, or politics, you'll enjoy Edwin L. Battistella's Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apologies. This is a terrific book, full of compelling examples and expert analysis. Reading this book will not only help you become better at making a mea culpa: you'll become a sharper observer of other people's apologies too.

As you would expect, this book is heavy on politics. Political screw-ups seem to be as old as politics itself, and those gaffes and scandals aren't restricted to any party, ideology, country, or time period. Battistella takes his examples from all over the political and literal map, focusing on the minute aspects of language. For example, he uses real-life examples to illustrate the difference between sorry and apologize, noting that apologize is a much stronger word because sorry "...reports on an internal state of the speaker but does not literally perform an apology."

Also, sorry multiplies the chances for a lousy apology, since "...I can be sorry for speaking out of turn or I can be sorry if I have offended you." The latter type of non-apology, as often discussed on Language Log, is particularly ineffective and annoying. Regret includes similar loopholes. You can regret taking your clothes off in Applebee's or you can regret that the manager called the police. The difference between words that say things and words that do things is a key aspect of this book.

Another recurring theme is that the quality of an apology often has little bearing on its success. For example, when Joe Biden called then Presidential candidate Barack Obama "the first sort of mainstream African-American, who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," he needed to apologize. His apology was a little sub-par: "I deeply regret any offense my remarks in the New York Observer might have caused anyone. That was not my intent and I expressed that to Senator Obama."

As Battistella notes, the apology was accepted by Obama and civil rights leaders, so it was "...successful in an instrumental sense. But it was not a genuine apology that named and expressed regret for a moral lapse." By minimizing the offense and being vague, Biden gave a slippery apology at best, but an apology that succeeded, perhaps because of Biden's civil rights record and the fact it wasn't in anyone's interest to make a bigger deal of the remarks. A weak apology worked, and Biden got lucky. Similarly, a fantastic apology might not work if the apologizee simply refuses to accept.

This book is mainly lexically focused, but it's also psychologically fascinating, particularly when Battistella analyzes the myriad reasons that motivate an apology—or a refusal to apologize. Often, such a refusal comes from a man, as in a memorable statement from George H.W. Bush that made it into the first collection of Bushisms: "I will never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don't care what the facts are." Battistella identifies this reluctance to apologize as a characteristic male trait, which he links to a John Wayne quote from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: "You're not quite ‘Army' yet, miss...or you'd know never to apologize...it's a sign of weakness." As with so many of the world's problems, a reluctance to apologize is testosterone-fueled, male BS.

Battistella, whose other books include Do You Make These Mistakes in English?, Bad Language, and The Logic of Markedness has written a fine book on an extremely relevant topic. It's also a damn fun read. There's something for everyone here, so if you love being reminded of Republican scandals, Democratic scandals, celebrity scandals, or even witchcraft scandals, you'll enjoy Battistella's recounting of the brouhaha. I for one was thrilled to be reminded of the Mark Sanford scandal that launched the immortal euphemism for cheating, hiking the Appalachian trail. Even if there weren't any analysis, the collection of examples would be worth the price of admission.

This book is also very practical, especially in its very last chapter, "A Reader's Guide to Analyzing Apologies." Whether you're evaluating someone else's apology or trying to concoct one of your own, this book will help you navigate apology's lexical minefields. In other words, I'm not remotely sorry I read this book.


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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