The Ambiguity of “Afraid”
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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