Years ago, Edwin Battistella helped a friend who writes advertising copy compose an apology for a direct-mail piece that had not gone over well.
The experience kindled a fascination with apologies, which Battistella, a Southern Oregon University linguistics professor, has turned into a book, "Sorry About That," published recently by Oxford University Press.
The book examines the language of public apology, with the rich field of politics yielding about half of the 40 or so examples that Battistella writes about. Also represented are entertainers (Mel Gibson, Oprah Winfrey), corporate bigwigs (CEOs of oil companies and McDonald's), and journalists (Dan Rather, Maureen Dowd), along with athletes and a famous preacher or two.
As part of his research, Battistella spent hours watching YouTube videos of public apologies, taking careful notes.
"I was really fascinated about the details of language," he says, "whether someone used 'I' or 'we' in describing what they did, or passive language, like 'mistakes were made.' "
He also pored over the transcripts of news conferences and congressional hearings, and studied the public papers of various presidents.
One of the hardest things to find was the comic strip in which cartoonist Al Capp apologized to Margaret Mitchell in 1942, he says.
Threatened with a lawsuit for publishing a parody of Mitchell's novel "Gone with the Wind," Capp apologized in singular fashion, allowing one of his hillbilly characters, Mammy Yokum, to chastise him for hurting the feelings of " 'sartin parties.' "
" 'You gotta make it right, Mistah Capp!' " Mammy goes on to tell him. " 'It's the code o' th' hills!' "
Capp's cleverness impressed Battistella. "He manages to have it both ways in his apology," Battistella says. "He apologized under threat of a lawsuit and winked his own insincerity."
Battistella strove for balance in choosing examples from the left and right ends of the political spectrum, and says he believes he did a good job of keeping his analysis evenhanded.
However, he admits, "I did take a certain amount of pleasure when a public figure I didn't care for did poorly."
Ultimately, though, Battistella's goal was not to embarrass anyone, but to enable his readers "to become better consumers of public language by helping them think through the examples."
When South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford faced the cameras to apologize for mysteriously disappearing for six days in 2009, he embarrassed himself grandly without anyone's help.
His apology contained a classic line of gibberish ("the biggest self of self is indeed self"), a strained appeal to "God's moral law," and a flippant last sentence ("and let me throw one more apology out there") — just a few of the reasons, Battistella notes, why it came across as evasive, insincere and dishonest.
As tawdry as these televised spectacles have become, public apologies still serve a valuable purpose, Battistella believes.
"The ritual of apology forces public figures to reveal themselves," he says. "It's a way for them to be forced to confront whatever harms they are responsible for, even if they do it poorly."
Often victims of an insult or injury will accept an apology quickly and move on. That's what Tiger Woods did when fellow golfer Fuzzy Zoeller apologized for his racially insensitive quip about the clubhouse food he would be forced to eat — fried chicken and collard greens — if Woods won the 1997 Masters tournament.
Linguists can be a harder group to please, however. Digging into the language of each apology in his book, Battistella weighs whether the person is being truly apologetic or is just practicing "verbal self-defense."
Does the person take ownership for his behavior without making excuses? Does he name his offenses, and understand why his behavior was wrong? Does he empathize with the victim?
As Battistella points out, many apologies lack even the most essential word.
"The word apologize anchors the true performance of an apology," he says, adding that such variants as "I am sorry," "I regret it," and "Forgive me," while often used to apologize, "do not literally do so."
Which is not to say that the mere presence of the word "apologize" satisfies the linguistic criteria for a true apology.
For example, the seemingly contrite "I apologize if I offended anyone" falls apart as an apology, according to Battistella, because the qualifier "if" deflects the blame from the speaker and places it on the offended party for being touchy in the first place.
Battistella guides the reader gently through the grammatical nuances that can determine whether an apology is heartfelt or phony. All in all, "Sorry About That," his sixth book, is a brisk read, written in layman's language.
And the national media has taken notice.
Publishers of the online magazine Politico invited him to contribute a guest column on the art of the political apology. For its online edition, TIME magazine requested a critique and the professor's grade for Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's apology.
Battistella was eager to oblige, and gave Sterling a C-minus.
"One of my colleagues accused me of grade inflation," he remarks.
If "Sorry About That" becomes a bestseller, you won't catch Battistella apologizing to the academic community for selling out.
"I really like the idea of professors writing for the general public, as well as for one another," he says, "and that's what I've tried to do here."
Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at email@example.com.