Thursday, May 5, 2011

Speech acts

We often think that the purpose of a language is to pass meaning but sometimes we use language to commit an act.
  •  I have a cat.  (this gives the listener information)
  •  I promise to do better.  (this is an act of promising)
  •  Go away!  (this is used to elicit action)
Here is a simple breakdown of the three groups of speech acts:


This is the actual passing of information from one person to another.

Illocutionary acts

By saying something, we do something[1].
Warnings, promises, challenges, request, greetings
“Searle (1975)[2] has set up the following classification of illocutionary speech acts:
  • assertive = speech acts that commit a speaker to the truth of the expressed proposition, e.g. reciting a creed
  • directives = speech acts that are to cause the hearer to take a particular action, e.g. requests, commands and advice
  • commissives = speech acts that commit a speaker to some future action, e.g. promises and oaths
  • expressives = speech acts that express the speaker's attitudes and emotions towards the proposition, e.g. congratulations, excuses and thanks
  • declarations = speech acts that change the reality in accord with the proposition of the declaration, e.g. baptisms, pronouncing someone guilty or pronouncing someone husband and wife”[3]

Perlocutionary acts

This is the result of the speech act.  Convincing, scaring, inspiring and making you laugh are all examples of this.

[1] John L. Austin (1962), How to Do Things with Words
[2] John Searle (1969), Speech Acts, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-09626-X.
[3] Excerpt from

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