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Speech Act Theory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4319 words Published: 1st Sep 2017

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Speech act theory is a technical term in linguistics and the philosophy of language. The contemporary use of the term goes back to J. L. Austin’s doctrine of locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts. It is developed by the great philosopher J.L Austin in the 1930s and set forth in a series of lectures, which he gave at Harvard in1955. These were subsequently developed in 1962 as How to Do Things With Words. He founded the modern study of speech acts.

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The approach has been greatly developed since by the philosopher J.R.Searle (Austin’s pupil). The central insight of the speech act theory which is attributed to Austin, Searle and other philosophers is that speech is action and language is used to perform things not only to describe a state of affairs. Moreover, Austin pointed out that many utterances do not communicate information, but are equivalent to actions. When someone says, “I apologize.” , “I promise” , or “I name this ship.” the utterance immediately conveys a new psychological or social reality.

Many scholars identify ‘speech acts’ with illocutionary acts, rather than locutionary or perlocutionary acts. As with the notion of illocutionary acts, there are different opinions on the nature of speech acts. The extension of speech acts is commonly taken to include such acts as promising, ordering, greeting, warning, inviting someone and congratulating.

Definition of speech act with elaboration

A speech act is an act that a speaker performs when making an utterance.

To Jennifer Spenader, speech act theory is:

  1. A theory where the effect of an utterance is analyzed in relationship to the speaker and listener’s behaviour.
  2. Speech act theory can also help us examine utterances from the perspective of their function, rather than their form.

Austin pointed out that when people use language, they are performing a kind of action. He called these actions speech acts. Traditionally, philosophers have distinguished between actions and speaking on the basis that speaking about something is quite dissimilar from doing it. Austin challenged this by demonstrating that utterances can be regarded as events in a similar way to other actions.

The below lists are samples of speech acts which Austin reckoned that this sort of list could be extended further.

  1. Statement “I live in Edinburg for five years”
  2. Order “Pay this bill immediately”
  3. Question “Where are you from?”
  4. Prohibition “No right turn”
  5. Greeting “Hello”
  6. Invitation “Help yourself”
  7. Felicitation “Happy new year”
  8. (grudging) apology “I hereby apologize as required by the magistrate”

(Griffiths, 2006:148)

We can say that each utterance on the right is based on single sentence and the sentence is the level of language. Here, the language is used to accomplish actions as Austin stated. The above sentences are not used just to say things, that is to say describe states of affairs, but rather actively to do things. Further, one cannot assess such utterances as true or false.

Moreover, most speech acts are not so official but they rely on the speaker using an utterance to signal his/her intension to achieve some action and the hearer inferring that action from the utterance. One can say that speech act cannot only be done in speaking but also in writing. The clue is the example number (7) in which it would be equally appropriate printed in a card or spoken.

As a matter of fact, there are purposes behind any utterance.

Consider these examples

  • A-Somebody has broken my leg.

In the above sentence, the following purpose appears

The first one is to describe things which are not the basic purpose and the second purpose is to complain which is the basic purpose as it doesn’t describe things.

  • B-I love you.

The purpose here is to please or to assure somebody.

  • C-Watch out, the gun is loaded.

The purpose is to warn someone.

  • D-She is a fool.

The purpose is to insult or to ease.

Thus, the gist idea of speech act theory is to do acts (things) and not simply to describe because description is not the important function of language.

Dichotomies (constative and performative)

Many writers, in their books, define the dichotomy constative (descriptive) and performative clearly.

Riemer in his books Introducing Semantics that an utterance is constative if it describes or states facts about a situation. Whereas performative is one which does not describe or state any facts, but which itself constitutes the performing of an action.

The following pair of examples serve the above point

  • A-I promise to visit tomorrow.
  • B-She promised to visit tomorrow.

In the first example, you promise to visit but if you don’t visit it, the person you said it can complain that you broke your promise. Sentences which perform actions are known as performatives while other sentences are called constatives.

Although constatives perform actions. The example (b) serves this point which performs the action of reporting her promise. Thus, the difference between the two (constatives and performatives) may not be as significant as the idea that all sentences can be used to perform actions of various sorts.

Broadly speaking, all utterances are performative in the sense of constituting a form of action rather than a matter of saying something about the world. Ultimately, a single utterance can have both aspects constatives and performative elements; they are all sayings and doings simultaneously.

Typical examples of performative verbs are ask, beg, beseech, command, congratulate, deny, deplore, declare, implore and warn. Only certain forms of the verb count as performing the speech act, mainly first person simple present active and third person present passive. Furthermore, a performative verb in a performative use can typically be accompanied by hereby.

See the following

  • A-I hereby declare the bridge open.
  • B-I hereby command you to surrender.

While in the below instances using hereby is not possible with non-performative verbs speaking.

  • A-I hereby persuade you to accompany me.
  • B-I hereby tell the truth.

As we said earlier, the performative use of performative verbs is extremely restricted grammatically. They must be first person simple present active and third person present passive.

Consider, first, active uses

  • I hereby promise to pay you next week.

Not: I herby promised you pay him the following week.

Similar contrasts are possible with passive uses

  • Passengers are hereby requested not to smoke.

Not: Passengers were hereby requested not to smoke.

  • You are hereby warned to leave immediately.

Not: They will be hereby warned to leave immediately.

  • Characteristics of Performative verbs
  1. The sense of the verb is always present.
  2. The subject is always first person (singular,plural)
  3. Since performative verbs are not descriptions but actions they are not subject to truth-value.
  4. In performative sentences the illocutionary act is explicit.
  5. Performative verbs like (affirm, allege, assert, forecast, predict, announce, insist, order, state, name, declare, bet, agree).
  6. For testing whether a verb is performative we can insert the word (hereby).

The book entitled semantics and pragmatics by Dr. Misbah Mahmood gives extra examples about the distinguishing between performatives and constatives.

  • Performatives Constatives

I promise I will be there. I will be there.

I warn you, the gun is loaded. The gun is loaded.

I thank you. I am very grateful.

I order you to read. You must read.

I request you to send me the book. Send me the book.

I apologize. I am sorry.

Are Performatives truth-evaluable?

Verschueren, in his book, entitled Understanding Pragmatics states that Austin drew a distinction between constative and performative utterances.

In this dichotomy, constatives are utterances in which something is said which can be evaluated along a dimension of truth. Performatives, on the other hand, are utterances in which something is done which cannot be said to be true or false but which can be evaluated along a dimension of ‘felicity’.

According to Austin’s account, it is an essential characteristic of performative utterances that they are neither true nor false, that is, not truth-evaluable, instead when something is wrong with them then they are felicitous (happy) or infelicitous (unhappy). The uttering of a performative is the doing of a certain kind of action , the performance would not normally be described as just “saying” or “describing” something.

For example, when Tom says “I promise to do the dishes” in an appropriate context he does not just describe what he is doing; rather, in making the utterance he performs the promise; since promising is an illocutionary act, the utterance is thus a performative utterance.

If Tom utters the sentence without the intention to keep the promise, the sentence is not false: it is rather “unhappy”, or “infelicitous”. In the absence of any such flaw, on the other hand, the utterance is to be assessed as “happy” or “felicitous”, rather than as “true”.

What Leech states is that “Constative utterances could be evaluated in traditional terms of truth and falsehood, performatives were neither true nor false: instead they were to be regarded as felicitous or non felicitous”.


By felicity and infelicity, as Yule points out, they can only be as appropriate that is the performance of a speech act to be recognized as intended or inappropriate that is if the speaker is not a specific person in a special context.

Briefly, felicity and infelicity are not subject to truth-value.

A sentence like I pronounce you man and wife, the performance, here, will be infelicitous on condition that the speaker is not properly qualified.

Regarding felicity condition (happiness condition), it can be grouped under three headings: preparatory conditions, sincerity conditions, and essential conditions.

Types of Felicity Conditions

There are normally conditions which must be fulfilled before a speech act can be said to have been properly performed. These are usually called felicity conditions or happiness conditions.

  • 1-Preparatory Conditions

The preparatory conditions for a promise and warning are unlike. When I promise to do something, two conditions appear: first, the event will not occur by itself, and second, the event will have a beneficial effect.

But when I utter a warning, it is not clear that the hearer knows the event will happen whilst the speaker does think the event will occur, and the event will not have a beneficial effect.

  • 2-Sincerity Conditions

They require the speaker to be sincere. When one promises to do something must genuinely intend to do it; someone congratulating somebody else must feel pleasure at that person’s good luck.

  • 3-Essential Conditions

By the act of uttering a promise, an obligation created to carry out the action as promised. In other words, the utterance changes my state from non-obligation to obligation. When speaker A warns speaker B, speaker A changes his state from non-informing of a bad future event to informing.

Aspects of Speech Acts

Austin found great difficulty in drawing a completely clear distinction between “performatives” and “constatives”; he came to the conclusion that to state something is to perform an illocutionary act, which renders all constatives as performatives; Austin proposed that in uttering a sentence speaker is involved in three different acts.

In other words, he isolates three basic senses in which in saying something one is doing something, and thus, three kinds of acts that are simultaneously performed.

  • 1-Locutionary act.

Lots of writers define locutionary act. One of them is Levinson in the book Pragmatics. Locutionary act is “the utterance of a sentence with determinate sense and reference”. (Levinson,1983:236)

Another definition is by Finch. “It refers simply to the act of saying something that makes sense in the language; in other words, that follows the grammatical rules of language”. (Finch,2000:180)

The last definition said by Cruse, in his book, Meaning in Language in which Austin explained as follows:

“the utterance of certain noises.. certain words in a certain construction, and the utterance of them with a certain sense and a certain reference”. (Cruse,2000:331)

From the above definition, we conclude that locutionary act is related to the inherent meaning of the lexical item and it is the province of semantics. It is the act of expressing the basic, literal meanings of the words chosen.

Besides, performing the act of saying something that makes sense in the language; in other words, that follows the grammatical rules of language.

For more elaboration, see the below instances

For example, Tom is outside the room. In this sentence both words (Tom and the room) have meaning and we should know what the words (Tom and the room) refer to.

In uttering the words, You will get your hands blown off, a speaker performs the locutionary act of stating that the hearer will get his hands blown off.

Suppose speaker A says to hearer B

There is a bear sneaking up behind you! (Fasold,2006:162)

Speaker A utters the word there and refers to the addressee with the word you.

  • 2-Illocutionary act

Cruse, in his book, entitled A Glossry of Semantics and Pragmatics defined that illocutionary act is “an act performed by a speaker in saying something (with an appropriate intention and in an appropriate context), rather than by virtue of having produced a particular effect by saying something” (Cruse,2006:167)

According to Finch illocutionary act is one which is performed through the medium of language: stating, warning, wishing, promising and so on.

Context can be seen in the definition and this leads to remind us the province of pragmatics. If we come to talk about intention, which is also found in defining illocution, we can regard that the intention is to inform, complain, thank, apologize, threaten, etc.

Consider the below instances

  • Father: I will turn out your light.

Here, the intention of father is to threaten her son. It is duty of pragmatics since the idea of threatening doesn’t relate to meaning but the context.

In the sentence like, There is a lion behind you, suppose that A is a speaker and B is a hearer. At the illocutionary level, A asserts a fact (that there is a lion behind B) and warns B that he/she is in danger. The speaker has the illocutionary force of warning.

In short, context in which the sentence is uttered is crucial in interpreting the illocutionary force of a speech act.

If someone says: I order you to leave now, the intention is ordering by virtue of having uttered the words, whether or not the addressee acts in the desired way.

  • 3-Prelocutionary act

Concerning prelocutionary Levinson states “the bringing about of effects on the audience by means of uttering the sentence, such effects being special to the circumstances of utterance”.

While Fasold points that prelocutionary is an action which goes beyond communication such as annoying, frightening, or tricking.

The contrasts between illocutionary and prelocutionary lies by lists of verbs

Illocutionary: report, request, suggest, announce, predict, order, propose, reprimand, promise, thank, express, congratulate, admit, ask

Prelocutionary: persuade, deceive, encourage, irritate, frighten, amuse, inspire, distract, impress, encourage embarrass.

Briefly, prelocutionary is the act of producing an effect in the hearer by means of the utterance. It is outside the province of semantics and pragmatics, because it involves many other aspects of the situations.

It is not always intended by speaker, is not under his control, and is not evident until after the utterance is made. The speaker tries to carry out a prelocutionary act for example to shock, to amuse, and to annoy somebody.

The following examples serve the above point

  • A-You will get your hands blown off.

The above sentence might be to prevent the hearer from playing with a lighter and a stick of dynamite, to frighten the hearer.

  • B-John is inside the hall.

The prelocutionary act for the above sentence is perhaps to disappoint, shock or annoy.

To explicate more about the three types of speech acts, we take instances to apply the three acts.

  • A-There is a wasp in your left ear.

The first act: we know speaker and listener. (reference)

The second act: the intention is the act of warning.

The third act: The hearer is panic (afraid). The hearer may scream and scratch his ears. Panic is not intended but the speaker tries to make the hearer panic.

B-Someone says Good night late at night in forest.

The first act: speaker and listener. (reference)

The second act: leave-taking, there is greeting purpose behind saying good bye.

The third act: to horrify or to frighten.

C-Father: I will turn out your light.

The first act: I refers to father, your refers to son’s light, having meaning and reference.

The second act: to intend the act of threatening

The third act: to frighten the son to sleep. The father tries to frighten his son. It is not under the control of the speaker and it may not be intended of the speaker that he wants to frighten his son.

Types of Illocutionary Acts

  • Implicit and explicit illocutionary force

Implicit performatives are those which don’t have performative verbs. For example when one says I will turn off your light, it is implicit since there is no performative verb and besides, the force doesn’t relate to the meaning of the words.

Another example “Be aware of the dog” means that “I warn you to beware of the dog”. Whereas explicit performatives are those which have performative verbs, that is, a verb which names the action being performed.

For example when I say I warn you that.., it is explicit as I am not describing or stating the existence of any independent fact; I am, instead performing an act (act of warning).

  • Speech Act Classifications

Searle (1976) has set up the following classification of illocutionary speech acts that one can perform in speaking. David Crystal in his book, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, sheds light on five basic types.

1-Representatives: the speaker is committed, in varying degrees, to the truth of proposition. For instance, affirm, believe, conclude, deny, and report. The following examples illustrate the point.

  • A-The earth is flat. B-Chomsky didn’t write about peanuts.
  • C-It was a warm sunny day.

In all the above instances, the speaker represents the world as he/she believes it is.

2-Directives: the speaker tries to get the hearer to do something. For example request, challenge, insist, command, advise, and suggest.

  • A-Could you open the door, please?
  • B-I suggest you take a taxi.
  • C-Don’t go too far.

The above-mentioned examples illustrate that the speaker tries to make the world fit the words through the hearer.

3-Commissives: the speaker is committed, in varying degrees, to a certain course of action. For example, promise, oath, refuse, pledge, threat, guarantee, vow, and swear.

The instances, which shown below, point out that the speaker undertakes to make the world adapt the words through the speaker.

  • A-I will be back.
  • B-We will not do that.

4-Expressives: the speaker expresses an attitude about a state of affairs. For instance, congratulate, excuse, thanking, deplore, apologize, welcome, and thank.

  • A-Congratulations!
  • B-I am really sorry.

The sentences indicate the speaker makes words fit the world of feeling.

5-Declaratives: the speaker alters the external status or condition of an object or situation solely by making the utterance. For example, resign, sack, appoint, name, christen, sentence (in court), bid (at auction), declaring war, pronouncing someone husband and wife.

The below instances clarifies more about what we said.

  • A-Priest: I now pronounce you husband and wife.
  • B-Referee: You are out.

One can say that the speaker changes the world via words.

Direct and Indirect Speech Acts

It is obvious that we have three structural forms (declarative, interrogative, imperative) and the three general communicative functions (statement, question, command/order) respectively. The table below clarifies more about what we pointed out.

Whenever there is a direct relationship between a structure and a function, we have a direct speech act. Furthermore, there is a match between sentence meaning and speaker meaning, that is to say, the form of the utterance coincides with what a speaker is intending to convey. But in case of having indirect relationship between the two which mentioned before we have indirect speech act.

Therefore, when a declarative used to make a statement it is functioning as a direct speech act, but when it used to make a request it is functioning as an indirect speech act.

Consider the following instances

  • A-It is hot.
  • B-I hereby tell you about weather.
  • C-I hereby request of you that you open the door.

It is clear that the sentence A is a declarative, the sentence B used as statement so, it is direct speech act but the last sentence C used as command therefore; it is indirect speech act.

A speech act can be indirect where one illocutionary act is performed by another. Well-known examples are requests which are superficially question. We expect actions rather than answer.

A-Can you pass the sault?

B-Would you mind if I opened the door?

So, the above mentioned sentences superficially are interrogative and they are direct speech act but if we look at them deeply they become request and in this case they are indirect speech act.

It is quite true to say that different structures used to attain the same function. The examples below show that the speaker wants the addressee not to stand in front of the TV.

A-Move out of the way!

B-Do you have to stand in front of the TV?

C-You are standing in front of the TV.

D-You’d make a better door than a window.

The basic function of all the utterances is a command. The first instance is direct speech act because its structure is imperative. Whilst the rest of the sentences are indirect speech acts because the interrogative structure is not used only as question and also the declarative structures are not used only as statement.


Needless to say, that conclusion shows the product of any turn paper, research and etc. In this turn paper, a formal account of speech acts provided. Throughout reading it, I infer that we can extend what a speaker means by his/her words.

Thus, utterances are not uniquely used to describe states of affairs but rather they convey speaker’s intention to the addressee. Speech act comprises the notion of speaker meaning since through it the intentions of the speaker can be felt or found it.

Also, I conclude that speech act is one of the helpful factors for decoding those words that uttered by a speaker. It is obvious that there is communication in speech act between speaker and hearer and this communication conveys not only linguistic meanings but also expressing attitudes, and understanding is a matter of recognizing the attitudes being expressed.

Another conclusion which is not to be forgotten is that if a sentence is interrogative, the same sentence could be regarded as request if we look at it deeply. The sentence “Could you sign the papers, please?” is our evidence. So, this case only occurred in speech act, one is direct and the other is indirect and the sentence has two functions question and request.


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