Apology Strategies

Seminar Paper 1999 30 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Content List

1. Introduction

2. Blum – Kulka / Olshtain
2.1 Apology as a speech act: classification
2.2 Preconditions for an apology to take place
2.3 Apology strategies
2.3.1 Coding of an apology
2.3.2 Subcategories of the IFID
2.3.3 Subcategories of Taking on Responsibility
2.3.4 Explanation, offer of repair, promise of forbearance
2.3.5 Apology intensification
2.3.6 Factors for the choice of a specific apology intensity

3. Bruce Fraser
3.1 Apology as a speech act: classification
3.2 Apology: What do we believe to be true about the speaker?
3.3 Preconditions for an apology
3.4 Apology strategies
3.5 Factors influencing the choice of an apology strategy

4. Anna Trosborg
4.1 Apology: classification as a speech act
4.2 Factors influencing the choice of an apology
4.3 Apology categories
4.3.1 Complainee does not take on responsibility
4.3.2 Minimizing the degree of offence
4.3.3 Acknowledgement of responsibility
4.3.4 Explanation or account
4.3.5 Expression of apology
4.3.6 Offer of repair
4.3.7 Promise of forbearance
4.3.8 Expressing concern for hearer

5. Comparison and evaluation of the three models
5.1 Classification as a speech act
5.2 Preconditions for an apology
5.3 Apology strategies
5.4 Apology intensification
5.5 Factors influencing the choice of apology

6. Evaluation of the three models

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In this paper we are going to deal with different theories concerning apology strategies. As there exists a variety of different theories, I chose just three of them for this paper. I will introduce their concepts, compare their differences and try to give a final evaluation of the three concepts.

2. Blum – Kulka / Olshtain

I will begin with the model of Shoshana Blum–Kulka and Elite Olshtain. They first of all classify apology as a speech act, name preconditions that are in­evitable for an apology to take place and then list different strategy types.[1]

2.1 Apology as a speech act: classification

The apology belongs to the post-event-acts, i.e. it signals that a certain type of event has already taken place. Moreover, the speaker recognizes the fact that a violation of a social norm has been committed and that the speaker is at least partially involved in its cause. The involvement means a loss of face (= face threatening) for the speaker and is hearer-supportive.[2]

2.2 Preconditions for an apology to take place

There are three preconditions that are inevitable for an apology to take place:

- S (= speaker) did X ( = event in question) or abstained from doing X (or is about to do it).
- X is perceived by S only, by H (= hearer) only or by both S and H or by a third party as a break of a social norm.
- X is perceived by at least one of the parties involved as offending, harming or affecting H in some way.

S must be aware of all three preconditions and infer the need for him / her to apologize. As a consequence, the apology takes place. S pays tribute to the social norms and attempts to placate the hearer.

The authors mention another possible case. This is the situation in which S recognizes an offence before H is aware of it. This variety is not subject to Blum-Kulka’s and Olshtain’s study. They study the cases, in which the offence is known to both participants. For these cases they figured out two main strategy types, which will be introduced in the following chapter about apology strategies.

2.3 Apology strategies

First we have the explicit i llocutionary f orce i ndicating d evice (= IFID). This is a routinized, formulaic expression of regret, like sorry, to apologize, to excuse, to regret etc. The function of the IFID is to signal regret on S ’s part for X, in order to placate H. Within the IFID s we find a certain scale of conven­tionality. In the English language, “to be sorry” is the most common expression of all IFID s.[3]

The second strategy type of stating an apology is the use of an utterance which contains reference to one or more elements from a closed set of speci­fied propositions. In contrast to the IFID, which is a direct way of apologizing, the use of these utterances is an indirect way.

The semantic content of these propositions relates to the preconditions that are inevitable for an apology to take place. Therefore, the utterance relates to a) the cause for X, b) S ’s responsibility for X or c) S ’s willingness to offer repair for X or d) S ’s promise of forbearance.

In other words, we have the IFID and four potential strategies of perform­ing an apology, namely the explanation of the cause that brought about the of­fence, an expression of S ’s responsibility for the offence, an offer of repair or a promise of forbearance. It is important to mention that the set of propositions is specified and closed, whereas the variety of utterances is open ended. They just have to refer to one of the propositions somehow.

The IFID and the four additional strategies are not mutually exclusive. The IFID can go together with one of the four strategies, as well as it can stand alone or be left out.[4]

2.3.1 Coding of an Apology

If we want to sort an apology into a certain category, we have to code it. In order to do so, we have to answer a specific series of independ­ent, dichotomous questions:

1. Does the utterance in question contain an IFID ?
2. Does it contain an explanation?
3. Does it express S ’s responsibility?
4. Does it convey an offer of repair?
5. Does it contain a promise of forbearance?

If the answer to one of these questions is affirmative, then the utterance is sorted into this category according to a list of sub-classifications that will be presented in the following.

2.3.2 Subcategories of the IFID

For the IFID Blum-Kulka and Olshtain give six different key-words, namely to be sorry, to excuse, to apologize, to forgive, to regret and to pardon.

2.3.3 Subcategories of Taking on Responsibility

This strategy marks the attempt of S to placate H by taking on responsibility for the offence that caused the need for an apology. As S admits a fault the situation is face-threatening to S and intended to appease H. The subcategories for this strategy vary from self-humbling to strict denial of any responsibility on S ’s side. Thus, H would interpret the acceptance of responsibility as a kind of apology, whereas the denial of responsibility would mean the rejection of an apology. The authors give a list of some of the possible subcategories:

1. S expresses trait of self-deficiency (thus accepting responsibility)
– I’m so forgetful.
– You know me, I’m never on time.

2. Explicit self-blame
– It’s my fault / mistake.

3. Denial of fault (rejecting the need to apologize)
– It’s not my fault that I fell down.[5]

2.3.4 Explanation, offer of repair, promise of forbearance

These three strategies are highly situation-dependent and therefore closely related to the type of offence that took place. If S, for instance, illustrates exter­nal factors that he has no power over this can fulfill the function of an apology. In some cases repair can be offered, sometimes S chooses to promise forbear­ance. Blum-Kulka and Olshtain give the following examples:

1. Explanation or account of cause
explicit: The bus was late.
Implicit: Traffic is always so heavy in the morning.

2. Offer of repair
specified: I’ll pay for the damage.
Unspecified: I’ll see what I can do.

3. Promise of forbearance
This won’t happen again.

2.3.5 Apology intensification

An apology can be intensified. Again, there are several devices S can use to do so. First of all, S can use an intensifying expression within the IFID. As an alternative S can express explicit concern for H externally to the IFID. The third opportunity is the use of multiple apology strategies ( +/- IFID and one or more of the four other strategies).

The three different ways of apology intensification are not mutually exclu­sive and can be used all simultaneously. Intensification within the IFID

The intensification within the IFID is usually expressed by the use of an in­tensifier. Such intensifiers can be adverbials (I’m very sorry) or repetitions (I’m terribly, terribly sorry). Intensification external to the IFID

Externally to the IFID the speaker can intensify his apology by an expres­sion of concern for the hearer (Have you been waiting long?) or the use of multiple apology strategies.[6]

2.3.6 Factors for the choice of a specific apology intensity

According to Blum-Kulka / Olshtain there are a number of factors that influence one’s decision to apologize and the choice, in which intensity it is done. Basically, three different levels of factors can be distinguished, namely the cultural, the personal and the contextual level. Depending on the assessment of the degree of offence committed (= violation of norms of behaviour in a given socio-cultural structure, affection of interlocutors role and relationship) the speaker chooses a specific apology intensity.

On the cultural level, coming late to a meeting could be seen as a more serious offence in an American meeting than in a comparable Israeli one. Therefore Americans will apologize with more intensity for coming late.

The individual level refers to the differences in people’s personal apology behaviour. Some people tend to apologize more often than others.

Concerning the contextual level, the physical setting might be relevant. Bumping into someone in the crowded bus may be seen as a lower offence than bumping into someone in the open space.

Moreover, social parameters of distance, power and age within the cultural setting might also contribute to the apology intensification.[7]

3. Bruce Fraser

Bruce Fraser deals with the matter of apologies in much the same way as Blum-Kulka / Olshtain do. First he gives a classification of apology concerning speech act categories. He afterwards analyzes the apology situation generally and then lists a number of strategies possible. He afterwards outlines the distinctive differences between the different strategies and gives an analysis of social factors.[8]

3.1 Apology as a speech act: classification

Fraser states that, in general, an offence means a violation of social norms. When the offender recognizes his violation, he may feel the wish to attempt to put things right again, in order to achieve a relief from social responsibility. In order to do so, the speaker has to do so-called “remedial work”, i.e. he must transform what could have been offensive into what could be seen as acceptable. Fraser mentions, that, according to Goffman, there are three devices for accomplishing such remedial work, namely account, request and apology.

An account is defined as an excuse or explanation in which the speaker refuses to take on responsibility for an offence. Instead, the speaker tries to transfer the responsibility to another person or source. There are different strategies. One can deny the occurrence of the act completely, one can admit the occurrence but claim ignorance of the effects and / or impaired competence (drunkenness, passion). The success of the excuse or explanation is dependent on the severity of the infraction and the plausibility of the justification.

Requests are “requests for permission to infract”. The speaker is aware of a potentially offending act and begs sufferance, thus exposing himself to rejection. Examples would be expressions like “excuse me” or “may I ask you a personal question?”. The request always takes place before the actual commission of the potentially offensive act, assuming that when a potential violation is allowed by the hearer, the action ceases to be a violation.

The third device mentioned is the apology. It works after the offensive action and expresses regret for the undesirable effect that the act had upon the offended.[9]

It is this device of apology that Bruce Fraser analyzes in his article. He proceeds in three steps. First he examines the beliefs that we assume to be held by the person apologizing. Afterwards he analyzes the preconditions for an apology to take place. Then he gives a list of the strategies that are possible to carry out an apology. Finally he takes a look at the significance of social factors concerning the choice of a specific apology strategy.

3.2 Apology: What do we believe to be true about the speaker?

There are four assumptions that we believe to be true about the speaker (the person apologizing):

1. The speaker (S) believes that some act (A) was performed prior to the time of speaking.
2. S believes that A personally offended the hearer (H).
3. S believes that he is at least partially responsible for the offence.
4. S genuinely feels regret.
The speaker can violate one or more of the four positions and still apologize successfully but insincerely.[10]


[1] Blum-Kulka, S., Olshtain, E.; “Requests and Apologies: A Cross-Cultural Study of Speech Act Realization Patterns” in: Applied Linguistics, 5 / 1984. (p. 196-213)

[2] ebenda, p. 206

[3] Blum-Kulka, Olshtain; p. 206

[4] Blum-Kulka, Olshtain; p. 206 f.

[5] Blum-Kulka, Olshtain; p. 207

[6] Blum-Kulka, Olshtain; p. 208 f.

[7] Blum-Kulka, Olshtain; p. 208 f.

[8] Fraser, Bruce; “On Apologizing” in: Coulmas, Florian (ed.); Conversational Routine, The Hague, 1981. (p. 259-271)

[9] Fraser, Bruce; p. 259 f.

[10] Fraser, Bruce; p. 261


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Ruhr-University of Bochum – English Seminar
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Apology Strategies Proseminar Pragmatics



Title: Apology Strategies