Rules for apologizing

OK folks, it is time to set down some rules about apologies. Almost every week some prominent person, politician, or official is in the news for something they said, or did, which was offensive to the public in general and some group or person in specific. And each time, after an unconscionable delay, they issue an "apology", which is then supposed to render the issue resolved. Trouble is, 99% of the time, the apology is disingenuous, and should be rejected out of hand.

So let us set down some ground rules by which we can measure the sincerity of an apology. But first, let us define "apology", specifically the definition that we, the public expect:

apol·o·gy: an admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret.

There is a second definition, which is given as the primary in some dictionaries:

a: a formal justification : defense b: excuse 2a

This definition is what a lot of apologies are, but they are passed off as the former, rather than the latter. Unless the person making the apology specifically states he is making the latter use of the word, then we expect them to be admitting error and regret.

1) If an apology contains a conditional modifier, especially the word "if", or is limited in any way, it is NOT an apology.

I am sorry if I offended anyone.
I am sorry if you were offended.
I am sorry to those I offended.
I am sorry you found my remarks offensive

All of these statements are conditional and are not admission is error, nor true regret. In essence, the person is stating that they are only sorry under a certain circumstance, and/or to a certain group of people. A person making an offensive statement or committing an offensive action has wronged the PUBLIC, not just a specific group (though they may have done that as well). Either your statement/action was offensive, or it wasn't. If it wasn't, then why are you apologizing? If it was, why are you equivocating and trying to "limit" your regret.

Other words likely to invalidate an apology are "may", "might", "could", and "but". Also, beware use of the passive voice and sudden shifts into the third person.

2) Apologies which offer excuses which attempt to limit, justify or re-direct the blame are not apologies.

My remarks were "off the record".

Well, now they are "on the record" and you have to answer for them. The fact that you made your remarks "in private" doesn't render them inoffensive. Just because a reporter may owe you an apology for failing to keep your remarks "off the record", doesn't abrogate you responsibility to apologize.

I am sorry my remarks were misinterpreted.

This redirects blame for your offensiveness to the person you offended. You are saying there was nothing wrong with your remarks, the person you offended is just too stupid to understand them.

My remarks were made at the end of a long and grueling day...

Being in the position of responsibility/power is inherently stressful and often requires long hours with little sleep. Despite this, you must still act and speak responsibly. If you can't, and by this statement you just admitted you can't, you should resign.

My remarks were made in the heat of the moment.

You lost your temper, which requires a separate apology.

I am sorry you overreacted...

My reaction is not germane, your offensive remark/action is.

3) Pointing out that the offended party has committed a similar offense against you, or some other person/group, invalidates the apology.

While I apologize for insulting your mother, I would like to remind you that you insulted my mother last week.

You are accounting for your own actions, not theirs.

We both said things we now regret...

This may be true, but again, this is an veiled accusation, not an apology. The other person probably would not have said what they said, but for your offensive remarks/actions. Also, they may not regret their remarks at all, and it is arrogant to make assumptions on their behalf.

4) Claims of benign intent are irrelevant, and also invalidate the apology.

It was not my intent...

Obviously it was not your intent, since if it were, you would not be apologizing. You may explain what you meant, but you may not try to invalidate how it was interpreted by others. Here is an example of explaining yourself, without questioning how the remark was percieved:

I meant my remarks humorously, and to my deep regret, I failed to convey that properly and offended you. Upon reflection, my attempt at humor was inappropriate, and I apologize for the hurt my poor judgment caused.

5) Expressing regret for what happened rather that what you did, is not an apology.

I am sorry this happened.
I regret that this happened.

It did just "happen", your actions precipitated the offense.

6) Apologies must be made to all parties directly offended, not surrogates, nor issued generally at a press conference. Public apologies should, by courtesy, be made after private apologies, and yes, you must apologize privately, and your public apology may not deviate from your private apology. You cannot offer a genuine apology, then a public non-apology. Doing so invalidates the private apology.

Recent examples of this type of non-apology would be Senator Clinton's non-apology to the Kennedy's for her tasteless comments about the assassination of RFK, while ignoring the her offense to Senator Obama; and John Hagee's non-apology to the Catholic League's Bill Donahue for offensive remarks made about all Catholics.

7) Apologize and STOP. Don't keep talking because if you do, you will invariably offer an excuse, shift the blame, or accuse the victim. Apologies should stand alone, and not be tacked on to any other point of discussion.

Before I begin this press conference, I would like to offer an apology...
Before we wrap up here, I would like to apologize for my remarks yesterday...

An apology is not a preface or an addendum, it is of greater importance to practically anything else you may have to say. It is about righting a wrong, not engaging in a rhetorical digression.

Remember, an apology has two components: 1) Admission of error. 2) Regret for the action. You cannot weasel on either. An apology does not require groveling, it is not an admission of weakness, nor is it a power play. If you can't be sincere, then spare us further insult.


Good apology rules to live by.

Key words are the giveaway:


That said, this one isn't all that terrible:

I meant my remarks humorously, and to my deep regret, I failed to convey that properly and offended you. Upon reflection, my attempt at humor was inappropriate, and I apologize for the hurt my poor judgment caused.


I meant that as an example of explaining your intent, without invalidating how it was interpreted. The sentence contains no qualifiers, explains what was the point of the original remark, but does not seek to excuse how the remark was taken, admits error, and expresses regret for the remarks.

I apologize for my failure to make that clear, and will edit the text to, hopefully, clarify my point. :)

Liberalism as a badge of honor!
No apologies, no excuses.

Liberalism as a badge of honor!
No apologies, no excuses.

How about this one:

"Although my statement appeared to be an attempt at humor, it was actually a vehicle for me to denigrate another person while also boosting my own ego."