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Is an Apology “Just Words” or An Action?

Some people dismiss an apology as “just words.”  A gesture without substance.

The words of the minister perform a legally-enforceable action.

The words of the minister perform a legally-enforceable action.

But the following are also “just words.” Or are they something more?

  1. Minister: By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you married.

  2. Jury: We, the jury, find the defendant guilty.

  3. Judge: I hereby sentence you to 55 years in state prison.

  4. King: I dub thee knight.

  5. Official: I now christen this ship The Constellation.

  6. Boss: You’re fired!

All these are words, yet they are a special class of linguistic expressions in that they, when expressed in an appropriate context, actually accomplish something concrete and measurable.  The words actually perform the action being described.­­­

When an authorized official pronounces a couple married, something profound—and not just something emotional—happens. New and durable legal obligations are created by the utterance.

If you are a defendant in a criminal matter and the jury pronounces you guilty, the rights you had enjoyed the second before are suddenly forfeit. It’s merely a sentence that the judge then utters, but the result is you are immediately handcuffed and led off to prison. When your boss says “You’re fired!” you’ve just lost your job.

It’s no coincidence that we are married by a “pronouncement” and dispatched to prison by means of a “sentence.”  We have known for centuries that some utterances are equivalent to action.

“I Hereby Apologize.”

So how about a linguistic expression such as, “I hereby apologize for my behavior”?

When a contrite offender utters a linguistic expression like that, is it “just words” or does something shift in the physical world? Does something measurable happen as a result of an expression of apology?

I don’t have a definitive answer to the question. Philosophers of language have been debating the matter for decades. Bear with me as we go into some linguistics.

Performative Utterances

There’s a well-studied class of expressions called performative utterances.

A performative utterance is a type of statement made using the right words, with the right intention, and in the right context in order to perform an action. It is an utterance that performs an act by virtue of the fact of its being uttered.

All of the bulleted examples cited above are performative utterances. In each case, the words perform a consequential action.

The boss utters some words. You are out of a job.

The boss utters some words. You are out of a job.

Some philosophers of language agree that a well-intended apology uttered in an appropriate context by the offender to the victim constitutes a performative utterance.

Others disagree. Detractors claim that apologies are really constantive utterances. A constative utterance is a linguistic expression which states, reports, or describes facts in the world. It is a statement of facts that can be judged as true or false.

Performative or Constantive

So this is the real question: When I utter a well-intended apology to you, have I issued a performative or constantive utterance?

My experience tells me that the act of issuing a well-intended apology does, in the moment of its utterance, change relationships in measurable ways. I have experienced this dynamic personally and have witnessed it with my own eyes.

A professor of linguistics may dismiss such evidence as anecdotal; hardly evidence at all.

They may be right and if I pay close attention to their arguments, they may even persuade me that I’m wrong.

If so, I’ll apologize for my error, followed by the seven words least-uttered and most welcome by academics around the world: “I was wrong and you were right!”

We’ll see if uttering such an apology changes anything.

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