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Chapter 10



Perlocutions and Illocutions



In the previous unit we made the point that a part of the meaning of an utterance is what that utterance does. This kind of meaning is essentially different from, and adds a new dimension to, the kind of meaning associated with declarative sentences by semantic theories of sense relations and logic. The view of meaning as acts also leads away from the emphasis placed by theories of sense relations and logic on truth. In this unit we shall begin to explore these consequences of the speech act view of meaning.

       The study of sense relations and logic has concentrated almost exclusively on the meaning of only one type of sentence, i.e. declaratives. Actually, attempts have been made recently to extend logic to cover imperatives and interrogatives, but these suggestions have not been generally accepted as identifying the correct way to analyze non-declaratives. In this unit we will begin to show how the notion of speech  acts could provide a link between the senses of declarative and non-declarative sentences.

       To start with, imperative and interrogative sentences, when uttered, clearly perform acts, just as declaratives do.


Practice :

(1)   could the utterance “Don’t come a step nearer!” be an act of warning?

(2)   Could the utterance “Get lost” be an act of dismissing?

(3) Could the utterance “Why don’t you try looking in Woolvorths?” be an act of making a suggestion?

(4)   Could the utterance “Do you think I’m an idiot?” be an act of rejecting a suggestion?

(5)   Just as the linguistic act of asserting can be seen as typifying utterances, i.e. what act is typically performed by uttering an interrogative sentence? ______________________________________________

(6)   And, similarly, what act is most typically carried out by an imperative utterance?   ______________________________________________


Obviously the simple matching of acts with sentence types has plenty of exceptions, and we need to develop a more subtle theory than that given in the table. So far, we have been rather crude in our  labeling of acts, as assertions, warnings, threats, etc. more careful distinctions need to be made between various different types of speech act, in order to begin to make sense of this area of meaning. We now introduce the technical distinction between perlocutionary act and illocutionary act.





The perlocuationary act (or just simply the perlocution) carried out by a speaker making an utterance is the act of causing a certain effect on the hearer and others. For example, if I say “There’s a hornet in your left ear”, it may well cause you to panic, scream and scratch wildly at your ear. Causing these emotions and actions of yours is the perlocution of any utterance, or the perlocutionary act I perform by making at utterance.

       The perlocution of an utterance is the causing of a change to be brought about, perhaps unintentionally, through, or by means of, the utterance (Latin per ‘through, by means of’). The point carefully distinguishing the perlocutions can often be accidental, and thus bear a relatively unsystematic relationship to any classification of sentence types.

       It is important to remember that the perlocutionay acts involved in examples such as these are not the effects of the original utterances. Rather, the perlocutionary act involved in making an utterance is that part  of the total act which causes such effects. We will return to this point later. Meanwhile, we move to the notion of illocutionary act.



The illocutionary Act (or simply the Illocution) carried out by a speaker making an utterance is the act viewed in terms of the utterance’s significance within a conventional system of social interaction. Illocutions are acts defined by social conventions, acts such as accosting, accusing, admitting, apologizing, challenging, complaining, condoling, congratulating, declining, deploring, giving permission, giving way, greeting, leavetaking, mocking, naming, offering, praising, promising, proposing marriage, protesting, recommending, surrendering, thanking, toasting.


Example:    Saying: “I’m very grateful to you for all you have done for me” performs the illocutionary act of thanking.


Practice : Selecting your answers from the list of illocutions given in the above definition, say what illocutionary acts are performed by the following utterances, assuming normal circumstances.


(1)   “Would you like a cup of coffee?”


(2)   “After you” (said to someone wishing to go through the same door as the speaker)


(3)   “I’m awfully sorry I wasn’t at the meeting this morning”


(4)   “You can play outside for half an hour”


(5)   Good evening”


(6)   “Good night”



As a further indication of the notion of illocutionary act, we contrast it with that of perlocutionary act. The perlocution of un utterance is often quite different from its illocution. We can see this using the last two sets of examples again.





The Phonic Act involved in an utterance is the physical act of making certain vocal sounds.

       The propositional act involved in an utterance consists in the mental acts of referring (to certain objects or people in the world) and of predicating, i.e. coupling predicates to referring expressions.


Practice :  A parrot says “Fire”

            (1)   Is a phonic act involved?                                     Yes / No

            (2)   Is a propositional act involved?                           Yes / No

            (3)   Is an illocutionary act involved?                          Yes / No

            (4)   Is a perlocutionary act involved?                         Yes / No

Mon, 16 May 2011 @10:36




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