I Apologize vs. I’m Sorry

Is there a difference in the two short phrases: “I apologize” and “I’m sorry”? My husband and I can’t seem to agree on this. He says the two phrases mean the exact same thing. He tends to go with “I apologize” for offenses he’s caused. I appreciate hearing “I’m sorry” more, and find that I move to forgiveness and hand-holding faster with those two words, over the phrase “I apologize”.

If we put the word “apologize” under the microscope, Dictionary.com defines it as a verb; to express or make an apology; acknowledge failings or faults — dating back to the late 1500’s. 

The word “sorry” is defined as an adjective; feeling regret, compunction, sympathy, pity, etc. It’s a much older word dating back to the 900’s AD. Folks were saying “I’m sorry” long before they started saying “I apologize”. 

One is a verb. The other is an adjective.

I’ll admit, the definitions of the two words doesn’t really paint a clear difference between the two phrases.  It takes more understanding of when and how the phrases are used. I feel as if one phrase should be left for people with whom you don’t have a relationship, and the other, “I’m sorry” should definitely be used for the people you love.

Hubby and I grew up in the exact same area of the country, in the southeast less than twelve miles apart, during the same time period. He is only 2 years and 8 days older than me. That’s not that much difference when you think of how utterly opposed we are on this issue. If our cultural norms were even slightly different growing up, I would simply chalk this up to the fact that we grew up different. However, that is not the case. There are many similarities in our upbringing. For the life of me, I can’t figure out where he picked up “I apologize”.

I was taught as a little girl when I did something that was wrong to someone, I was to go to that person and say the words, “I’m sorry”. I can hear my three-year-old self struggling against my inner will to speak the words, hesitating to say them.  They were often the hardest words to say, not because of a limited vocabulary, but because of the emotions that had to be suppressed to get the words out. I recall being forced because it was the right thing to do, and the only way to get beyond whatever I had done wrong. It was mandatory. Saying those words never really got easier, even as I grew up. Sure, as I got older and realized that I could opt out of saying “I’m sorry”, I probably said it less times than I should have. Haven’t we all?

My husband and I agree that an apology is an admission of some sort of wrongdoing or misbehavior. We agree that an apology is in order when something has happened that shouldn’t have. We agree that a person should take ownership when they are at fault, or the cause of a misdeed. However, to apologize does not necessarily mean that a person’s heart is involved; it may or may not be heartfelt. To say, “I apologize” is just that: it could or could not mean that you are remorseful. It is simply taking ownership for the offense.

To say, “I’m sorry” is a more straightforward expression of sorrow.

Yes, both phrases can be offered with sarcasm, and extended with minimal sincerity. Even the sterile, uncaring government will offer an apology. Large, greedy corporations will quickly release statements that include the words, “we apologize,” especially when their bottom line is on the line. Its use is very formal for the purpose of taking responsibility, and expresses regret more than sorrow. I feel it’s fine to say “I apologize” for offenses in impersonal relationships. On the other hand, for intimate relationships, “I’m sorry” is best.

It’s like a handshake and a hug. A handshake is impersonal. A hug is more intimate. One is for people you don’t really know, but with whom you want to be cordial. The other is for the people you care about.

In a marriage, it is not usually a guess who has done the wrong. So the offer of an apology that is simply verbalized as “I apologize,” in an effort to take ownership of the offense is not necessary. It was no mystery of who was at fault. The words “I’m sorry” are emotional and empathetic. For me, they have the ability to swing wide the gates to forgiveness.

Since marriage is a collection of opportunities to offend your spouse, thereby making forgiveness a necessity for a happy life, wouldn’t it make sense to use the quickest route to get over the offense? Forgiveness from the offended comes easier when the offender is genuinely remorseful. Maybe it’s all in how you say it, but I just think “I’m sorry” carries  more sincere empathy than saying, “I apologize”.

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