A few weeks ago, at the start of the federal election campaign, the two leaders held a debate before the National Press Club. In that debate, Howard offered an apology (I have to choose my words carefully here) expressed his being sorry with respect to the abhorrent treatment of Australia’s indigenous people up to and including now.

I wrote about it at the time under the guise of a semantic analysis of the speech act ‘to apologise’ or alternatively – one might even say synonymously – ‘to be sorry’. In the last week we’ve had another apology expression of sorry, this time pertaining to the recent rise in interest rates.

For some background, the last election was won on the basis of interest rates. Despite only having indirect control of the factors that the Reserve Bank take into account when evaluating the official interest rate each month, Howard disingenuously gave the impression that he could affect them directly, and promised to keep them low. I believe the phrase used in the 2004 election campaign was Keeping interest rates at record lows.

I suppose a pedant might argue that, as this is a non-finite verb phrase without a contextualised noun phrase to act as the inferred subject, then it is not predicated of anything and therefore does not propositionally mean anything – in layman’s terms, he never exactly said he, the government or the coalition would keep interest rates low, it was merely rhetorical. Although such an argument would rely entirely on the technicalities of syntax and would have to wholly ignore pragmatics.

Pardon. I’m getting a little side-tracked. My point is that Howard said this (emphasis added):

I don’t like it and I would say to the borrowers of Australia who are affected by this change that I am sorry about that and I regret the additional burden that will be put upon them as a result.

When the Labor party took him to task on this, he claimed that what he did was merely say sorry, rather than apologise:

I said that I was sorry [that the interest rate rises had] occurred, I don’t think I actually used the word apology, I think there is a difference between the two things.

He’s right in one respect, but quite wrong in another. He’s right that there are two types of speech act that are called the same thing; they are both apologies as far as I want to label them, but while one includes an implied acceptance of responsibility, the other includes no such thing (for a more full semantic analysis, see here).

However, he’s quite wrong when he says that the difference manifests as the difference between the verbs ‘be sorry’ to mean one kind, and ‘apologise’ to mean the other. As far as I’m concerned, speaking as a lay lexicographer here, the verbs ‘be sorry’ and ‘apologise’ are about as close to synonyms as you could possibly get. But if you’d like something a bit more solid than folk lexicography (which is the final arbiter of these matters, in my descriptivist opinion), here’s the OED’s thoughts:

sorry, a.

    [1.] d. ellipt. for I am sorry. colloq.    (a) Expressing apology or regret.

    From the 1993 Additions series

“Expressing apology or regret”. That is, the speech act ‘be sorry’ may be an expression of apology, or it may be an expression of regret. So technically speaking, Howard can justifiably draw this distinction and say he was expressing regret, not apology, but the question then becomes: given that being sorry could equally have been an expression of apology, is it permissible to draw the distinction after the ‘expression of sorry’ had been accepted by the media and the public?

In any case, I might disagree with the interpretation of the OED, which Howard’s advisers have probably studied closely, and maintain that the expressions I apologise and I am sorry are completely synonymous, the former merely having the slight typological advantage in that it is easily nominalised to apology, while the latter doesn’t easily lend itself to multiple uses; I am sorry is about the only way you can use it. Each, however, may equally contain the same ambiguity with respect to the acceptance of responsibility. If I’m misguided about this; if ‘be sorry’ and ‘apologise’ mean different things to you, please let me know!

The debate over this rather insignificant point is this: did the public perceive Howard’s saying sorry as the sort whereby he accepted responsibility? I would have thought so, since the other kind, the I’m sorry that… variety, as in I’m sorry that your dog got hit by a car, or I’m sorry that my incredibly racist remarks caused people offence, is not the sort of apology that people normally ask for. It’s the sort of apology that someone offers voluntarily upon hearing some bad news, such as a dog being hit by a car. If an apology is actively sought, as it was in this case, then one expects the sort of apology in which acceptability is accepted.

At the end of the day, this is all rather moot; the government doesn’t control interest rates. They have some indirect control over some factors that very slightly impact on the Reserve Bank’s decision, but their decision is informed mostly by international market forces. Interest rates are low here because they are low, even lower, elsewhere. Howard shouldn’t be ascribed responsibility, but neither should he have forcibly taken responsibility for low interest rates generally.