January 13, 2004

Pete Rose and sorry statements of the third kind

Just before I left for the LSA meeting in Boston there was much discussion in the press and on radio and TV shows about whether Pete Rose's long-awaited apology (for betting on baseball while he was a baseball manager, and lying in his teeth about it for over a decade) would earn him sympathy with the public. I heard one radio show where they got hold of a professor who had written articles about public apologies and what makes them work (being sincere, showing understanding of what had been done wrong, expressing remorse, doing it on Larry King Live, etc.). Well, as far as the much-quoted passage from his book is concerned, the simple fact is that Pete Rose hasn't apologized at all. People aren't being sufficiently sensitive to the grammar of the adjective sorry.

It should be clear that an apology has to be in the first person, and in the present tense. But it is not enough to utter something in the first person that has sorry as the head of an adjective phrase predicative complement. The word sorry is used in three ways.

First, sorry can be used with a complement having the form of what The Cambridge Grammar calls a content clause:


I'm sorry that the the political situation in the Holy Land is still mired in violence, because I wanted to go to Bethlehem at Christmas.

If I utter (1), I am not apologizing; I have never caused or defended any of the violence in the Middle East. It's not my fault. I just regret that the situation persists. This use can constitute an apology (as Jonathan Wright reminded me when he read the first version of this post), but only when the content clause subject is first person as well: I'm sorry I hit you is an apology, but I'm sorry you were hit is not, so watch for that subject.

Second, sorry can be used with a preposition phrase headed by for with a complement noun phrase denoting a sentient creature:


I'm sorry for that poor little kitten, which seems to have figured out how to climb up a tree without having any idea how to get down.

If I utter (2), I am not apologizing; I never suggested to the stupid kitten that it should climb fifty feet up into a beech tree. I'm just expressing sympathy, as a fellow mammal, for its present plight.

And third, sorry can be used with a preposition phrase headed by for where the preposition has as its complement a subjectless gerund-participial clause or a noun phrase denoting an act:


I'm sorry for doing what I did; I behaved like an utter pig, and you have a right to be angry.


I'm sorry for my actions last night; I should never have acted that way and I want you to forgive me.

Only this third kind of use can constitute an apology, as opposed to a statement of regret about the truth of a proposition or a statement of sympathy for a fellow creature.

Now, here is the passage from Pete Rose's book (reprinted in an excerpt in Sports Illustrated) that people have been carelessly referring to as containing an apology:

"I'm sure that I'm supposed to act all sorry or sad or guilty now that I've accepted that I've done something wrong. But you see, I'm just not built that way. So let's leave it like this: I'm sorry it happened and I'm sorry for all the people, fans and family it hurt. Let's move on."

The first sentence ("I'm sure that I'm supposed to act all sorry...") couldn't possibly be construed as apologetic. And in the last sentence he clearly and explicitly employs only the first and second types of use for sorry: he regrets that the incident occurred without describing the incident with a first person singular subject (compare with (1)), and he has sympathetic feels for those hurt (compare with (2)). Beware of thinking that a sentence beginning with I'm sorry is an apology. It need not be. If it's like the quote just given, it may be closer to an intransigent refusal to apologize. If a genuine apology in writing is a precondition for getting back into baseball, Pete Rose is showing no signs of being eligible to get back in.

He actually came a lot closer in a December 12 interview with Primetime Thursday on ABC News, parts of which were also aired on "Good Morning America". He said:

"I am terribly sorry for my actions and for my bad judgment in ever wagering on baseball, and I deeply regret waiting so many years to come clean."

That's a sorry of the third kind, and it has the form of a direct apology. And he also said:

"I would like to apologize to the fans for abusing their trust."

You can perform an action with words by stating that you would like to perform it: if you are legitimately at the microphone and you say "And now I would like to introduce Professor Noam Chomsky", and Professor Chomsky promptly steps up to that microphone and begins to lecture, you will be understood as having introduced him, even though what you literally said was only that you would like to. That's known as an indirect speech act, and it does work.

Overall, one waits with interest to see if Rose's mealy-mouthed mixture of direct apologies, indirect apologies, and clear avoidances of apology are going to count as enough in anyone's view to allow him to get that Hall of Fame induction he is yearning for. I'd bet against it.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 13, 2004 12:13 AM