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The question is: what is ‘the ‘caused’ doing?

"Flight C53Z62 to Southampton has been delayed due to mechanical problems. We are sorry for the inconvenience caused."

"The 16.52 service to Portsmouth is running 15 minutes late. We are sorry for the inconvenience caused."

Occasionally the apology is more formal. We regret any inconvenience caused. But we are sorry for the inconvenience caused is better.

All the same, why ‘caused’? Caused by . . . us? We are sorry for the inconvenience caused by our inefficiency? Or maybe caused . . . to the victims? We are sorry for the inconvenience caused by buggering up your plans for the day?

‘Caused’, in this familiar phrase, is redundant. We are sorry for the inconvenience means precisely the same thing as We are sorry for the inconvenience caused. The first sounds like something a person might actually say – I mean something a real human being might say. The second sounds like a tannoy announcement.

While being inconvenienced by delays, I spend much time reflecting on the official expression of regret. I very nearly said ‘on the phrasing used’. That’s because I was being dragged, against my will, into the same remote mindspace where words are offered as placebo. Inconvenience is caused. Phrasing is used. The verbs contribute nothing.

Nothing meaningful, that is. But maybe they’re there for the rhythm. We are sorry for the inconvenience caused is not iambic pentameter – not quite. But if you allow for the tripping entry of ‘We are sor…’, the rest is iambic, and it has that numbing quality of regular iambic verse. You can say I am sorry for the inconvenience caused and not feel a thing.

Once you’re into We regret any inconvenience caused it’s a riskier business. You can’t avoid the fact that the emphasis falls on ‘any’.  Such a statement may preface an overnight in a hotel, or a bus laid on to take passengers to Glasgow.

Besides, the definite article does have a function in the original phrase. It is not just any inconvenience, it is THE inconvenience, the concept of which floats through life on a regular basis. It is the inconvenience we know so well but for which we cannot carry responsibility. It is the inconvenience we experience with a wearily iambic sigh.

There are two other things I specially like about the inconvenience of an inconvenience caused. One is the issue of spelling.

Both convenience and inconvenience, when it comes to spelling, have one more syllable than is strictly convenient. As a result, a popular error is to write ‘convience’ or, more often, ‘inconvience’. We are sorry for the inconvience caused. (NB This has a different rhythm and fails to placate agitated travellers.)

The other pleasure in inconveniences is when they occur to toilets. One of the great British euphemisms for toilet is, of course, ‘Public Convenience’. So a notice on the door reading: “Closed for cleaning. We are sorry for the inconvenience caused’ strikes me as comic. Recently I was on a plane flying from Edinburgh that was delayed (really) because of a problem with one of the toilets. They were sorry for the inconvenience caused.

But the toilet was fixed eventually and we were invited to board the plane. As we went down the stairs with our hand luggage, a notice instructed us to Please use the handrail provided. Provided? What is the provided doing?

I could continue. Please, however, use the full stop provided.

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Tuesday, 28 March 2023