“I’m Sorry Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That.”

On Sunday, I naturally found myself thinking about how scary a mummy actually is, as a horror character. I think I’m with Homer Simpson on this one:

Ooh, pretty creepy. Still, I’d rather have him chasing me than the Wolfman.

Even more naturally enough, for me anyway, this in turn got me thinking about how we talk about being afraid in English. It’s quite easy to translate adjectives like afraid, scared and frightened into other languages because fear is such a primal feeling that we tend to think of it in the same way across languages. Terror and horror might be more complex, but the basic sense of fear is one we all recognise. A sentence like…

I’m afraid of spiders.

… isn’t hard to translate, or for a learner of English to understand. But what about this famous line from 2001: A Space Odyssey:

I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that. 

Imagine you’re an English teacher and you have to explain a) what I’m afraid means in this case, and b), why we specifically use I’m afraid instead of other phrases. The first task’s not too bad: you could just say it means I’m sorry, and that’d be good enough. But what about explaining why we use it?

When you think about it, it’s a bit strong, isn’t it? Are we ever actually really afraid when we use the phrase in this context? Why not just use I’m sorry? The obvious answer is that I’m afraid is a stronger, more formal form of I’m sorry. Still though, it’s a bit much isn’t it? It feels logical enough I suppose if you consider it’s from an older time when more formal, polite forms of English were common. And if you use it in a situation when you genuinely feel you may upset someone, it kind of makes sense too. That being said, I still feel it’s too polite, too subservient, and I think a lot of people more used to other languages would agree.

But you know what? Even though I think it’s too polite, and don’t really use it, I still appreciate its existence. A lot of people say English is much more polite than other languages, and I understand that. But other languages have their own ways to be polite too. What’s impressive about English is the sheer variety of degrees to which you can be (im)polite. Instead of saying I’m afraid I’ve just broken your vase; you could also say I’m sorry I broke your vase; take away the I’m… from the beginning to make it a little less formal, or just say Sorry or Oops! Or you could go to the other extreme and say It’s with a heavy heart and a deep, deep sadness that I feel compelled to inform you, with I assure you the utmost regret, that I have but recently broken your vase, which was perched upon that end table not ten seconds ago.

Or, you could not apologise at all and say I broke your vase. Deal with it.

However I feel about it, I’m glad that I have the option to use I’m afraid…, and can use English in other ways to be incredibly precise. It’s an amazing power to have.

The problem with I’m afraid… though, which I alluded to above, is how confusing it can be for a non-native speaker. Consider again the line from 2001. Imagine a learner of English is watching the film with English subtitles in order to improve their English. They come across this line, and think…

The computer’s afraid? Oh, that’s strange, he doesn’t seem to be afraid. And he’s a computer: can he be afraid? And what’s he afraid of? He’s not under threat?.Wait, what’s happening, I’m distracted…

It’s curious that the dialogue of HAL 9000 in the film was designed to make him seem like a polite human, and this works for native speakers, but perhaps not so much for a learner of English. This politeness also works as a contrast with the later poignant scenes(spoiler alert) of HAL being shut down (and perhaps losing his mind from being forced to lie) and shedding his more formal language to plead for mercy:

I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.

I don’t know if Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke deliberately chose to contrast this literal use of I’m afraid with HAL’s earlier polite use of the phrase, but it’s certainly very effective. Heartbreaking, really. And shocking too, as we consider whether this artificial intelligence can truly feel emotions. But for the hypothetical English student who thought HAL was afraid earlier when Dave was just asking him to open the door, maybe it loses some of its impact. He was already scared earlier, so of course he’s scared now! Big deal!

While this specific situation may not occur for many people (though I generally recommend the works of Stanley Kubrick in any context, watching a film that has no dialogue for its first 25 minutes probably isn’t the best way to improve your vocabulary), it does illustrate in a very roundabout way how confusing the phrase I’m afraid can be, especially if encountered in written English where the context of apology might not be clear. And this is where learning a language can get frustrating, and confusing. Learning a language is exhilarating at first, as you learn simple phrases, and translate words directly from your native tongue into the language you’re learning.

But soon you reach a plateau when you find it hard to learn new words or structures, and you come across things that just don’t seem to make sense. Like I’m afraid, which defies the common language-learning strategy of creating an association to help you retain the phrase, because the first thing your brain might associate with I’m afraid is the feeling of fear, not apology.

Is there, as so many clickbait ads suggest, one simple trick to make such aspects of learning a language easier? I’m afraid not. Though I would advise you not to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey or A Clockwork Orange to improve your English. Not a horrorshow idea at all, my droog.

9 thoughts on ““I’m Sorry Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That.”

  1. This is exactly where dictionary-using ESL students and people who use translation programmes get into trouble. They’ll substitute a synonym for the original word. Not knowing that “I’m afraid” is an idiomatic use in this case, they’ll say, “I’m frightened I broke your vase.” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I just read something by a writer who had obviously used a translation program because the phrase “from where I sit” (ie “from my perspective”) was written “from my chair”. Translation programs are so literal!

    Liked by 1 person

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