‘I’m sorry,’ said XY formally.

DeeDol

Senior Member
Slovak
Hi,

I am wondering if the word formally changes or specifies the meaning of the phrase I'm sorry.
I'll give you two examples from The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith:

‘Euphemisms for death are so interesting, aren’t they?’ said Fancourt lightly. ‘I didn’t “lose” her. On the contrary, I tripped over her in the dark, dead in our kitchen with her head in the oven.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Strike formally.
‘Yes, well…’
(This death happened 25 years ago. Could it mean "I'm sorry for your loss" or "My condolences" after such a long time?)

and

Well, after Angela had died ... I told her to tell him Angela was dead. He’d met Angela,’ said Kathryn, her face crumpling again. Pippa set down her own glass and put her arms around Kathryn’s shaking shoulders, ‘I thought he’d realise at least what he’d done to me when I was losing… when I’d lost…’
For over a minute there were no sounds in the room but Kathryn’s sobs and the distant yells of the youths in the courtyard below.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Strike formally.

(This is a recent death, which happened about a month ago. Again, I have the same question: could it mean "I'm sorry for your loss" or "My condolences"?)
 
  • Egmont

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    "Formally" means he's saying it as a matter of form: because he has to, because he knows it's a suitable thing to say - not because he feels any real sympathy for the bereaved people.
     

    JustKate

    Moderate Mod
    I disagree with Egmont. What it means to me is that he said it in a formal, ceremonious way. The degree of formality in which someone speaks has no correlation to how sincere that person is. If someone is being formal, he might be sincere or he might not. All you can say for sure is that he's acting and speaking in a particular way we refer to as "formal."
     
    Last edited:

    Cenzontle

    Senior Member
    English, U.S.
    Like JustKate, I read "formally" as referring to the manner of speaking.
    Having it mean "as a formality" (perfunctorily?) is a novel idea for me, which I will have to think about.
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    I agree with Kate that formality doesn't generally indicate a lack of sincerity.

    However in this particular case I read it as Egmont did: that "formally" means 'as a matter of form' and not 'in a formal manner' — perhaps because "I'm sorry" is such everyday language, and so short, that I can't see how the expression itself can be said to be either formal or informal.

    I've tried standing in front of a mirror and saying "I'm sorry" repeatedly, varying tone and pitch, pace and cadence. No variant seems any more or less formal than any other. If I wanted to make it informal, I might just say "Sorry". In a formal style, it might be "Please accept my sincerest sympathy".;)

    Ws:)
     

    RM1(SS)

    Senior Member
    English - US (Midwest)
    "Formally" means he's saying it as a matter of form: because he has to, because he knows it's a suitable thing to say - not because he feels any real sympathy for the bereaved people.
    I don't believe I've ever seen or heard formally used with that meaning.
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    The first definition of formal in the WR (Collins) dictionary is "of, according to, or following established or prescribed forms, conventions, etc".

    That would fit with Strike's saying "I'm sorry" in order to follow the established form or convention of what to do when informed of a death.

    I'm still trying hard to imagine how the simple expression "I'm sorry" could be considered a formal style or manner of speaking.

    Ws:)
     

    Cenzontle

    Senior Member
    English, U.S.
    I didn't stand in front of the mirror as Wordsmyth did—although I admire that technique—
    but I am getting "semantic fatigue" by repeating "he said formally" in my mind. It no longer sounds natural with either of the meanings discussed here.
    Nevertheless, it does occur (1.49 million times!) on the Internet, and you can do a websearch to see the examples.
    Then—if you haven't become fatigued like me—you can try to judge what it means to say something "formally" in each example.
     

    JustKate

    Moderate Mod
    The words aren't formal or informal - they are neutral as to formality - but the way they are conveyed can be one or the other. This is true of many common sentiments, isn't it? "How are you?" can be informal when shouted over the jukebox in a noisy bar, and it can be very formal when said to someone at a White House reception.

    But to get back to the question in the OP, "I'm sorry" can mean many different things here. It can mean "I'm sorry for your loss" but it might also mean "I'm sorry to have brought up such a painful subject."
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    I'd say it's the situations that are formal or informal there, not the register of the speech. Relating those examples to DeeDol's text, I'd be puzzled by sentences such as:
    - "How are you?", shouted Strike informally over the noise of the jukebox.
    - "How are you?", said Strike formally to the President.

    But if I did see that second sentence, I'd probably take it to mean that he asked the question because it's correct form to do so, rather than through any real concern for the President's well-being.

    As for the intended meaning of "I'm sorry", we're back on common ground there, Kate. I agree that there are numerous possibilities. All we can be sure of is that Strike said he's sorry, with "formally" indicating either why or how, but not for what.

    Ws:)
     

    JustKate

    Moderate Mod
    I guess we're going to just have to agree to disagree on what formally means here. I have very seldom seen it used to mean "according to form," so perhaps that is coloring my impression, but I think it's fair to say "in a formal manner" is a more common meaning of this word.

    But at least we agree on the many possibilities for "I'm sorry." :)
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    I'm tending to favour formally to mean 'as a matter of form'; we say things like, 'He made a formal apology', to mean that the apology was a legal requirement or a requirement of convention.

    However, the fact that it's described as formal suggests that it's not heartfelt, and therefore not a very expressive way of saying it.

    This seems to link up with Wordsmyth's why (to satisfy convention) and how​ (the delivery of the phrase).
     
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