Apologizing

A letter to the NYT on the 28th, under the heading “Church Abuse Sentencing”:

Re “Church Official in Philadelphia Gets Prison in Abuse Case” (news article, July 25):

At his sentencing for child endangerment, Msgr. William J. Lynn said to relatives of an abuse victim, “I hope someday that you will accept my apology.”

I hope that the victims wait for an actual statement of apology before they consider whether to accept it.

WINNIE BOAL 
Charlevoix, Mich., July 25, 2012

Quite likely, Msgr. Lynn thinks that what he said was in fact an apology. Winnie Boal doesn’t think so.

The art of the non-apology apology is a perennial subject on Language Log; see, for example, this 2008 posting of Mark Liberman’s (with cartoon instructions on how to apologize when you’re not sure what you did wrong). For a proper apology, the apologizer has to recognize and name the offense and take responsibility for it, without hedges. This Msgr. Lynn did not do.

Instead, what he did was say something that he took to be equivalent to the totally non-specific (though direct) “I apologize” or “I’m sorry”. But it wasn’t phrased that directly. In fact, it was two steps away from such direct speech acts.

One step away would be something like “(Please) accept my apology”, which counts as an offer of an apology (and so implicates the apology), just as “(Please) accept this free gift” counts as an offer of the gift. But Msgr. Lynn then hedged on that, saying “I hope you will accept my apology” — an expression of his wishes, which implicates a request to accept an apology, which then implicates the (minimal) apology.

So the whole business is a doubly indirect speech act, conveying a non-specific apology. Scarcely an act of genuine contrition.

 

One Response to “Apologizing”

  1. Greg Lee Says:

    Well, my guess is that Lynn intended to convey greater contrition by his wording: he was apologizing, but his offense was so great that he could not reasonably expect the apology to be accepted, ever, but he did hope that sometime in the far future, it would be.

    When I first read the example, I was struck by the “someday” in the upstairs clause, though it belongs downstairs.

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