The Ambiguity of “Afraid”

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Jacqueline writes:

I have a question about a …particular phrase, which can be read in two different ways…:”I am afraid I am unable to meet your requirements.”

According to Jacqueline, the statement was interpreted by its recipient to mean the that the writer

was taking the polite way to say they wanted to get out of their obligations,

when in fact the writer wished

to express the fear of something that this person did not want to have happen (meaning they were afraid that this was so, but did not want it to be the case) and also to convey a implicit request for help (please help me to overcome this fear.)  

Jacqueline concludes that

Had the statement been communicated orally…the meaning would have been communicated with inflection of the voice and other non verbal means.”

It is true that oral communication is aided by facial expression and inflection that does not exist in written expression. And it is true that the word afraid can be used with more than one meaning. The sentence in the question, for example can be construed to mean

I am unable to meet your requirements (therefore, I won’t be working with you).
I’m uncertain as to whether or not I will be able to meet your requirements (so, tell me more).

Either way, orally or in writing, if the person with whom the sentence originated was looking for a job, the thought should have been expressed more directly.

Afraid is an adjective that comes from a verb, afray, meaning “to frighten.” Afraid derives from the past participle form. Until the late 16th century, “I’m afraid” meant “I’m frightened.” In the late 16th century, “I’m afraid” came to mean “I regret to say” or “I suspect,” without any connotation of fear.

It’s ironic that, in a situation such as Jacqueline describes, if the speaker or writer actually has a sense of fear or misgiving, it is probably better to choose an expression other than “I’m afraid.” “I fear,” or “I’m worried that” might express the thought more clearly.

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14 thoughts on “The Ambiguity of “Afraid””

  1. I don’t think the original example is ambiguous, I think it is wrong (not grammatically, but in that it doesn’t say what was meant): “I am” is too definite.

    It should say “I am afraid I MAY be unable able to meet your requirements” or better still, “I am afraid I may not be able…”.

  2. Though, of course, it also still retains its first meaning. ‘Be afraid, be very afraid…’!

    The better word in the first quotation might be ‘regret’, which one hopes to be the case!

  3. I agree, the phrase is not ambiguous. The writer simply didn’t say what he meant. He communicated his concern…whatever take on “afraid” you have doesn’t change that fact, but did not say what he intended to become of it. No amount of oral inflection or body language would have would have made those words alone clear enough in a business setting. He didn’t state his point.

    Unless he was wanting to express his fear and nothing more…maybe he was talking to his father…..


  4. Actually, there is (at least there should be) a distinction between the conveyance of regret or fear in the context of the sentence. Since the writer stated, “I am afraid that I AM unable . . . ” he is expressing regret (at least a polite quasi regret) that he cannot, for whatever reason meet the obligations. If he was expressing fear that he might not be able to meet the obligations, he should have said, “I am afraid that I MIGHT NOT BE ABLE . . .”

    Words are powerful tools if used correctly.

  5. @James: I agree totally. If someone asks me, for example, to lie about something to save his hide, and it is morally repugnant to me to do that, I would say, “I’m afraid I CAN’T do that.” Meaning, I can tell you RIGHT NOW now it’s not going to happen, ever. If, OTOH, I don’t mind lying to save his hide, but I think I’m an unconvincing liar, I would say, “I’m afraid I WON’T BE ABLE to do that,” i.e., I’m afraid I won’t be able to lie convincingly WHEN REQUIRED TO DO SO, IN THE FUTURE, to save his hide. In the first case, I also could have said, “Go fly a kite,” (i.e. I’m not compromising my morals to save your pathetic hide), and it would have been in an indignant, offended voice. In the second case, I would have probably added something about being an unconvincing liar, and my voice would have had an anxious, worried tone, hoping we could figure out how to get around my inability to be a convincing liar.

  6. Yes, I agree with James. People don’t, in practice, use the “I am afraid that” construction to express real fears, though logically it *could* mean that. “I am afraid *of*” is the way people express genuine fear or trepidation.

    You are correct that it is better to express it differently to avoid misunderstanding, but it isn’t really because the phrase is ambiguous, but because it is insincere. It is probably not wrong to use it in common expression because the meaning is so well understood, and it’s one of those “lubricating phrases.” But it is not strictly a good use of language, and if you’re going for precise — well, it’s not.

  7. Perhaps this is a case where the context determines the meaning. For example, I can say “I’m afraid the gunman is still in the building.” This can mean two things without changing the words.

    Meaning one: Fear
    Example: A clerk is standing across the street from his office building where a shooting just occurred. His boss asks him why he isn’t at his desk. The clerk responds, “I’m afraid the gunman is still in the building.”

    Meaning two: Regret, or “soft” denial
    Example: The same clerk tells a policeman that he would like to return to his cubicle because his boss is pressuring him to get to work. The policeman says, “You can’t go in yet. I’m afraid the gunman is still in the building.”

    James, the point about the tense, stated or implied, affecting the meaning is good. The tense seems to affect the context of the statement.

    As Maeve noted, this expression can be ambiguous. Someone writing a formal document or speaking officially is well advised to find a better way to express his or her idea so that the intended meaning is clear.

  8. >>”“I’m afraid the gunman is still in the building.”<<

    Precise Edit, that's a great sentence. If taken on it's own it is ambiguous, but in context, as you illustrate, it's totally clear.

    In reality, I have never actually heard or read 'afraid' used in a way that was ambiguous. (outside of of random fragmented Instant Messaging or the like).

    I maintain that the ambiguity of the example given in this post:

    "I am afraid I am unable to meet your requirements."

    has nothing to do with 'afraid' and is simply because the writer never said what they meant, regardless of the use of 'afraid.'

    Even if the writer had left out any indication of his feelings, and said:

    "I am unable to meet your requirements.”

    that still would not have the same problem. So what did he intend to do about it? Is he quitting? Does he want a meeting to discuss? Does he want more time?


  9. >>that still would not have the same problem.<<

    I meant "that still WOULD HAVE the same problem."

    Oh, the irony of not being able to edit comments on a writing blog.

  10. @ApK:

    This is exactly the kind of thing that annoys me about people who use wishy-washy phrases. One that springs to mind: You invite someone to your house, knowing that she has never been there. She says, “I don’t know how to get there.” Well, what does THAT mean?! Duh, I KNOW you don’t know how to get here. Do you WANT to know how to get here? Is it what you perceive to be a polite way of saying you don’t want to come? Does it mean you don’t own a GPS and maybe wish you did? Does it mean you are too lame to use MapQuest? Does it mean you’re AFRAID to venture out of your house and go somewhere you’ve never been?! Jeez!! Say what you mean LOL

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