Sorry: That Big Dumb Powerful Word

A friend who once lived in England told me that the word sorry is used differently there, that it is less an apology than an expression of sympathy. Over the years my friend and I have listed alternative meanings of the word sorry and assigned each a country of origin (without much regard to real or imagined national character). “Sorry, and I mean that the Bulgarian way,” is our running joke.

People say sorry a lot, often leaving its meaning ambiguous. Many of the words we rely upon most are ambiguous. Love, for example, can mean what you feel for your children or your socks—kind of a wide range there. (See Declaration of co-dependence.)

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When I find a powerful and powerfully ambiguous word, I try to parse its meanings systematically. So here goes:

Sorry functions as a preferred segue; the most relied-upon device for switching topics and for getting conversations and friendships out of a rough patch. It’s the path of least resistance for getting away. It’s such an extremely useful word because it helps us move on, but also because its ambiguity enables us to leave vague just what we’re moving on from and to.

I count three main ways we use sorry to segue between topics:

Step one: From whether something is wrong to whose fault it is. “All right, I see your point—that would be hard and I’m sorry.” Step two: From whose fault it is to whose burden it is to fix it. “Look, I’m sorry it happened and here’s what I’m going to do about it.” Step three: From whose burden it is to another topic altogether. “OK, I’m sorry. Now can we talk about where we’re getting dinner tonight?”

Something feels amiss to someone. It’s a three-step process to get from what it is to what’ll be done about it to another topic altogether. Each step adds complexity to the ambiguity, so let’s take them one at a time.

From whether something is wrong to whose fault it is. One way we use sorry is as a descriptive adjective. “I’m sorry.” or simply “Sorry.” The meaning is generic sympathy, as if to say, “I don’t venture to guess what is causing your hard time, but my heart and perhaps my effort goes out to you for your difficulty.”

We also use sorry as a predicate adjective, a special type of adjective that follows a linking verb and modifies (directly refers to) the subject of the sentence. In other words, “I’m sorry that . . . ” followed by a pronoun.

I’m sorry that I hurt you. I’m sorry that you’re upset. I’m sorry that he caused you pain. I’m sorry that it’s so difficult. I’m sorry that we are so incompatible about this. I’m sorry that they are so hard on you.

These play indexical roles, like index fingers pointing at the source of the difficulty: the source is me, you, we, or some outside (he, she, it, they) force. (See the article Youmeus Point for more about the language of finger pointing.) Together with plain “sorry,” then, there are five kinds of sorry based on the source of the problem:

  1. Me
  2. You
  3. Us
  4. Something or someone outside us
  5. Don’t know or won’t venture to say

It pays to be clear on all of these options. Too many conversations in which the word sorry is the hot potato ignore the possibility of one or another of these sources. (See Mid-Wife Crisis for an example of ignoring outside forces that make marriage more difficult in general.)

Notice that the simple sentence “I’m sorry,” perhaps the most common use of sorry in a sentence, is particularly ambiguous. It suggests an apology, “I’m sorry that I did something wrong.” But it can just as easily be short for “I’m sorry that . . . ” followed by any pronoun. So which is it? Sorry that I . . . . Sorry that you . . . . Or some other sorry?

From whose fault it is to whose burden. Sorry implies another indexical finger identifying who will take responsibility for fixing the problem. If the problem originated with me then likely I should fix it; with you, then you should fix it. But if the problem originates in us (bad chemistry or misunderstanding, for example) or in some outside source, then the question of who should fix the problem is more open-ended. For example:

“I’m sorry you’re so frustrated that they overcharged us. I’ll go back and get a refund.” Or “I’m sorry and who knows what happened. I guess you’ll just have to fix it.”

The pronoun options I listed earlier apply to this second stage too. On the question who’s going to deal with what’s wrong, the options are:

  1. Me
  2. You
  3. Us
  4. Something or someone outside us
  5. Don’t know or won’t venture to say

From whose problem it is to another topic altogether. Sorry moves conversations along, we hope to a satisfying completion. Trouble is, we often disagree about what completions would satisfy. We use different tones of voice—from resigned to sarcastic—to add weight to sorry so it pushes the conversation toward our favored completion.

“Jeez, I’m sorry, OK? Why do you have to make such a big deal out of it?” That’s the kind of thing to say when you don’t think you’re the source of the problem, shouldn’t have to deal with it, and want to move on already.

How many permutations of sorry are there? Given the five multiple-choice options for source and burden we get a combinatorial of five squared, or twenty-five sorries, including My fault; your burden Their fault; my burden Our fault; your burden And so on. . . .

With even just a slightly more fine-grained analysis of the pronouns the number jumps from five to nine:

  1. Me
  2. You
  3. He
  4. She
  5. It
  6. We
  7. They
  8. Don’t know
  9. Know but won’t say

Nine squared, so sorry could mean any of eighty-one things, including

Her source; your problem Their source; his problem

Levels of Analysis

And if it weren’t complicated enough already, there’s still one more complexity. Sorries can be nested in a hierarchy:

Well, I’m sorry . . . Well, I’m sorry you’re sorry . . . Well, I’m sorry you’re sorry I’m sorry . . .

That may sound like a joke but in practice the hierarchy is what often makes conversations about who is and should be sorry such cans of worms:

“Look, I’m sorry.” “For what you did?” “No, that you feel bad when I didn’t do anything wrong.” “But you did do something wrong.” “Well, I’m sorry.” “For what you did?” “No, I’m sorry that you feel I did something wrong when I didn’t.” “I don’t want you sorry that I feel you did something wrong. I want you to apologize for what you did.” “Well, I’m sorry.” “For what you did?” “No I’m sorry that you don’t want me to feel sorry that you want me to feel I did something wrong.” “I don’t want you to, oh, never mind.”

The variations on sorry are so numerous I couldn’t even begin to assign a country for each one. Still, through this systematic categorization, it’s possible to get a framework for that fancy footwork we all do in a day with the big, dumb, and powerful word sorry.

And if this analysis gave you a headache, I’m sorry.

And I mean that.

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