Monday, 29 December 2014

Sorry Seems the Hardest Thing to Say

Especially if you’re a commercial organization.

Consider three quite distinct uses — and therefore three quite distinct meanings — of ‘Sorry’.

One is exemplified by ‘The dog was a sorry sight when she got home after an unsuccessful afternoon’s rabbit-hunting in the rain.’ Here, ‘sorry’ is an adjective, characterizing the dog’s appearance: bedraggled, abject, disappointed, soggy.

Sense two is the common one: ‘I’m sorry I trod on your laptop/cat/baby.’ ‘Sorry’ is here something like what linguistic philosophers have called a ‘Performative Utterance’; to say ‘sorry’ in this sense is to be sorry. One remembers from childhood being told ‘Say “Sorry”!’ and how one felt about it. It is admitting blame and declaring remorse.

Then there is sense three: ‘Sometimes I almost felt sorry for that prat Dennis: imagine being married to Maggie.’ To feel sorry for someone is to feel pity or sympathy.

Now consider the following only lightly fictionalized openings to letters from companies:

‘We are sorry that you are not pleased with your Russell-Hobbs Espresso Machine…’ (This flimsy piece of plastic has less pressure than a nun’s fart and consequently makes acridly undrinkable coffee; it’s incapable of frothing any kind of milk, and it falls over as soon as one touches any of its controls.)

‘We are sorry you disliked the typography of our edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems…’ (It looked as if the printer had used blotting paper and a leaky ink-jet cartridge).

Many people getting either of those two letters would think ‘Well, at least they said ‘Sorry’. But read more carefully: of course they hope you will take these ‘Sorry’s in sense two, but in fact they’re using sense three, though minus the sympathy and plus some contempt. Just try getting them to admit liability and offer redress and you will see what I mean. It’s become a common trick, and they get away with it because they know most people won’t or can’t analyse what has been said, and anyway think ‘correct usage’ is an outmoded concept; that linguistic precision doesn’t really matter.
But it bloody well does.

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