The English Language is Impossible

The English language is hard partially because of some ambiguities in key terms that are used daily. There are words that are just confusing.

Worst of all in my opinion is the word “sorry”.

I’m Sorry

The phrase “I’m sorry” can mean dramatically different things that are easily confused. 

At a funeral, I might say “I’m sorry” to express sympathy or empathy for the person’s loss. But it’s not an apology or admission of guilt. I’m not suggesting that I caused the death.

If I bump into someone on a crowded bus and say “I’m sorry”, it is a sort of apology or at least a recognition that I take some responsibility for the minor mishap. At least, I acknowledge that I regret that this happened even if I’m not assuming responsibility.

However, there’s also the true expression of regret and guilt as in when I ate all the cookies when Mom had said I was only allowed to have one. Busted by Mom, I’ve been shamed and am apologizing to my hungry and cookie-less siblings with “I’m sorry”.  This was an actual admission of guilt, blame, and regret. To this day, I feel guilty about pigging all the freshly-baked cookies that one time!

Back to Education

How is a teacher supposed to get her elementary school students to understand these nuances of meaning when such a critical word has such a range of frequently confused meanings?

I think the answer is to model precise use of language and then to start asking your students to do the same. If a student uses “I”m sorry” in a confusing way, a teacher can ask saying: “Are you just expressing sympathy for an unfortunate situation or are you accepting blame, stating regret,  and resolving to try not to repeat it?”  Of course, in the context of an elementary classroom, that would be harsh and not fully appropriate but I think you see the idea.

Real World Modelling of Being Precise with Words

As a more realistic example, a teacher could say to her students, once an ambiguous word is used: “I’m sorry that English is so hard to understand.”  Then, the teacher could ask the class if they felt the teacher was:

A: Saying it is regrettable that English is so hard
B:  Taking responsibility personally for having created the complexities in English
C: Both of the above

Like many multiple choice class questions, this can be discussed and then people can either vote either by a hand count or having three places in the room to go to be vote and be counted (this is more engaging for many young students and helps avoid having them sit still for too long a time).

Modelling Speaking Precisely

Personally, I could avoid saying that “I”m sorry English is so hard to understand” since it’s ambiguous if I’m taking responsibility or not for the regrettable peculiarities of English (Perhaps as mayor of VocabularySpellingCity I do have some complicity). 

Instead, I should say: “It’s a shame that English is so hard to understand.” This way it’s clear that I’m expressing sympathy for the teachers and students’ heavy burdens without suggesting that I have any guilt or complicity in it.  But in addition to speaking precisely, it’s better pedagogy to explain to everyone why we are choosing the words that we do.


I’m Sorry

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