I'm sorry, but...

Language Pet Peeve no. 12:

Why is it so common for people to preface any opinion or strongly-felt sentiment with “I’m sorry, but…”? This happens frequently in conversations and particularly in classrooms: Students continually say, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think the argument is reasonable;” and “I’m sorry, but I that’s how I feel.”

I encounter this phrasing in otherwise-compelling writing, like Kristin Breitweiser’s review of the by-all-accounts abominable ``DC 911’‘. She says (my emphasis):

It also confuses me that the filmmakers would allot so much time to the war posturing in Afghanistan because that, too, has been a failure. President Bush is quoted in the fictional drama as saying he will take Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.” But, I’m sorry, have we captured him? And why so much time spent on this war plan anyway? I thought there was a copy of it on the President’s desk the day before 9/11? So what’s all the fuss about? Why all the cabinet meetings with all the dignified speak?

It could be argued that Breitweiser’s “I’m sorry” is a sarcastic way of saying “pardon me?” as in “pardon me, what did you say?” But every time I encounter this particular phrasing, it stops me in my tracks. When making a strident point, why use language that even resembles an apology?

It would be reaching too far to suggest that the proliferation of “I’m sorry, but” reflects, for example, the crushing and dismissive response to dissent seen all too often from our current U.S. administration; the phenomenon of prefacing one’s thoughts with such a disclaimer is too common for that to explain it, but it does fit nicely within such a climate. In academic settings, where I encounter the phrase too frequently both in graduate courses and with undergrads, “I’m sorry, but” seems to signal not only passive-aggressiveness, but simply passivity, an expectation that one’s ideas are faulty, lacking, inappropriate. But neither dissent nor misunderstanding should require a disclaimer, so don’t apologize for that comment.