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”.

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 lost. 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.

However, there’s also the true expression of regret and guilt as in when I ate all the cookies when Mom said I was only allowed to have one. Busted by Mom, I’ve been shamed and am apologizing to my cookie-less siblings with “I’m sorry”.  This is an actual admission of guilt, blame, and regret. 

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 might be a little wordy and harsh and not fully appropriate but I think you see the idea.

As a more realistic example, 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.

I’m Sorry

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