Chapter 9


Speech Act




‘Actions speak louder than words’ is a well-known proverb. But we will show in this unit that the alleged distinction between acts and speech is a misleading oversimplification. We will show how, to a large extent, speech is action, and that language can actually be used to do things.

       When a speaker, in appropriate circumstances, makes an utterance containing a referring expression, he carries out a certain act, an act of referring. Referring is typically a linguistic act, but we shall see that it is possible to carry out all sorts of other acts using language. We will start with another obviously linguistic act, that of stating or asserting.

       An ACT of ASSERTION is carried out when a speaker utters a declarative sentence (which can be either true or false), and undertakes a certain responsibility, or commitment, to the hearer, that a particular state of affairs, or situation, exists in the world.  There was once a strong tendency among semanticists  to assume that there was not much more to the meanings of sentences (and utterances) than this kind of correspondence between sentences (and utterances) and the world. This view has been called the Descriptive Fallacy. We give a simple version of this below.

        The DESCRIPTIVE FALLACY is the  view that the sole purpose of making assertions is to describe some state of affairs. According to the Descriptive Fallacy view, my only purpose in uttering “Simon is in the kitchen” would be to describe a particular state of affairs, and nothing more. The Descriptive Fallacy is not wholly wrong. An element of description is involved in many utterances. But description is not indulged in only for its own sake. There is usually a more basic purpose behind an utterance.


A PERFORMATIVE utterance is  one that actually describes the act that it performs, i.e. it performs  some act and simultaneously describes that act. For example, “I promise to repay you tomorrow” is performative because in saying it the speaker actually does what the utterance describes, i.e. he promises to repay the hearer the next day. That is, the utterance both describes and is a promise. By contrast, the utterance “John promised to repay me tomorrow” although it describes a promise is not itself a promise. So this utterances does not simultaneously do what it describes, and is therefore not a performative.

       By saying I warn you that there is a sheepdog in the closet, you not only say something, you warn someone. Verbs like bet, promise, warn, and so on are performative verbs. Using them in a sentence does something extra over and above the statement.

       There are hundreds of perfomative verbs in every language. The following sentences illustrate their usage:


I bet you five dollars the Yankees win.

I challenge you to a match.

I dare you to step over this line.

I move that we adjourn.

I nominate Batman for mayor of Gotham City.

I promise to improve.

I resign !

I pronounce you husband and wife.


In all these sentences, the speaker is the subject (that is, the sentences are in first person) who by uttering  the sentence is accomplishing some additional action, such as daring, nominating,, or resigning. in addition, all these sentences are affirmative, declarative, and in the present tense. They are typical performative sentences .





Practice :

(1)    If I say to you, “I warn you not to come any closer”, do I,

        by so saying, actually perform the act of warning you not

         to come any closer?                                                        Yes / No

(2)   Does the utterance “I warn you not to come any closer”

       describe an act of warning by the speaker?                            Yes / No

(3)   Is the utterance “I warn you not to come any closer”

       a performative utterance?                                                 Yes / No

(4)   If Sam says to Rachel, “I admit that I took 50p from the

        coffee  money” does he, by so saying, actually perform

        the act of admitting that he took the money?                        Yes / No

(5)    And does Sam’s utterance describe  an act of admission?          Yes / No

(6)    Is “I admit that I took 50p from the coffee money”

       performative?                                                                   Yes / No

(7)   If someone says, “I’m trying to get this box open  with a

       screwdriver”, does that utterance itself constitute an act

       of trying to open a box with a screwdriver?                            Yes / No

(8)   Is “I’m trying to get this box open with a screwdriver”  

        performative?                                                                  Yes / No


Opposed to performative utterances are constative utterances. These can be defined very simply. A CONSTATIVE utterance is one which makes an ASSERTION   (i.e. it is often the utterance of a declarative sentence) but is NOT performative. For example:     “I’m trying to get this box open with a screwdriver” is a constative utterance, because it makes an assertion about a particular state of affairs, but is not performative, i.e. the utterance does not simultaneously describe and perform the same act.


Practice : Are the following utterances performative (P) or constative (C)?

(1)   “I name this ship Hibernia”                                          P / C

(2)   “I believe in the dictatorship of the Proletariat”                 P / C

(3)   “I admit I was hasty”                                                 P / C

(4)   “I think I was wrong”                                                P / C

(5)   “I hereby inform you that you are sacked”                       P / C

(6)   “I give you supper every night”                                     P / C





Mon, 16 May 2011 @10:41

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