Apologies in the discourse of politicians: A pragmatic approach

  • James Murphy

Student thesis: Phd


In this thesis, I analyse apologies produced by British political figures from a pragmaticperspective. In particular, I seek to explain the function of political apologies anddescribe the form they take. In order to give a thorough account of the speech actof apologising in the public sphere, I look to a variety of genres for data. The set ofremedial acts scrutinised in this study come from debates and statements in the Houseof Commons, the Leveson Inquiry and news interviews.The differences in communicative practices between these data sources mean thatthe types of apology that come about within each genre are varied. Many ofthe parliamentary apologies are monologic, whereas the apologetic actions foundat the Leveson Inquiry and in news interviews are dialogic and, to some extent,co-constructed between participants. These differences mean that a variety oftheoretical approaches are taken in analysing the data - speech act theory (Austin,1962; Searle, 1969) and generalised conversational implicature theory (Levinson,2000) feature heavily in the discussion of monologic apologies. Apologies producedwithin an interactive, 'conversational' setting are treated using developments inconversation analysis (amongst others see: Sacks, 1992; Schegloff, 2007). I attemptto reconcile these two, quite different, approaches to discourse at various points inthe thesis, arguing that conversation analysis lacks a theory of how interlocutorsunderstand what actions are happening in interaction (and this is provided by speechact theory) and speech act theory lacks a detailed focus on what actually happens inlanguage as interaction (provided by conversation analysis).On the basis of the apology data scrutinised in the thesis, I propose a set of felicityconditions for the speech act of apology (chapter 2) and discuss how the apology (andspeech acts broadly) should be considered as prototype entities (chapter 8).I show that when apologising for actions which they have committed, politicians aremore fulsome in their apologies than we are in everyday conversation. I also show thatthey use more explicit apology tokens than is found in quotidian talk (chapter 3). Whenapologising for historical wrongs, I demonstrate that apologising is a backgrounded actand the focus of the statement is on being clear and unequivocal about the nature ofthe offences for which the government is apologising (chapter 6).I also argue that political apologies in interactive settings are best thought of as actionchains (Pomerantz, 1978). That is to say, apologies in these environments may elicit aresponse from an interlocutor, but do not need to (chapters 4 & 5). This is quite unlikeeveryday talk (cf Robinson, 2004).I discuss how apology tokens may be used in the performance of other acts, includingintroducing dissent and undertaking serious face threat. I suggest that this comes aboutbecause apology tokens exist on a cline of pragmaticalisation (chapter 7).
Date of Award31 Dec 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorMaj-Britt Mosegaard Hansen (Supervisor) & Erik Schleef (Supervisor)


  • apologies, remedial actions, political discourse

Cite this