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Commissives

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English

Are you good at keeping promises? You may recognise this gesture:

Pinky promise, pixabay.com

Yes, this is known to many people as a pinky promise or pinky swear! This gesture is usually made amongst children as a sign that a promise has been made. Did you use this gesture when you were younger?

Fun fact: The pinky promise is said to have originated in Japan, where it is called 指切り (yurikiri), meaning ‘finger cut-off’. Do you know of any other names for pinky promises?

Making a promise is an example of a commissive speech act, which is the term we will be exploring today. We will begin by explaining the definition of a commissive speech act and then look at the different types of commissives. We will consider why each type is used by the speaker and the effects they have on both the speaker and listener.

So what is a speech act?

A speech act is an utterance that has a purpose in communication. Whenever we speak, we are also carrying out an action. These actions can be referred to as illocutionary acts, which are broken down into five categories: assertive, directive, commissive, expressive and declarative.

What are commissive speech acts?

According to Searle (1976), in reference to Austin, commissives are used to “commit the speaker to a certain course of action” ¹. In other words, commissives are a way for a speaker to make sure that they will do (or not do!) something in the future.

What are examples of commissive speech acts?

Some examples of commissive speech acts include:

  • Promise

  • Vow

  • Pledge

  • Guarantee

  • Swear

  • Offer

  • Refusal

  • Threat

Let’s go through these in more detail!

Promise

A promise is an acknowledgement to yourself or others that you will do something or something will happen. Usually, when you promise to do something, you are telling yourself or others that you will go through with something no matter what. This isn’t always the case though, as promises can be broken!

As previously mentioned, pinky promises are gestures of promises usually made amongst children, to confirm with one another that a promise will be kept.

“I promise to buy you a new bag.”

“I promise I’ll tell you later.”

“Do you promise to listen to me?”

Vow

Think of a more formal promise. A vow is a serious promise to commit yourself to doing something.

“I’ve made a vow to stop drinking.”

“I vow to never lie.”

“Let’s make a vow to always be honest with each other.”

Vows are often associated with western wedding ceremonies, where couples make promises that they will stand by one another and share their lives together.

Wedding rings, pixabay.com

Pledge

A pledge is also a more serious promise, used as an agreement that someone will do something and stay true to what they are doing.

“I pledge to always be a good friend.”

“I’ve made a pledge to improve our work environment.”

“I pledge that I will sort my life out by the end of this year.”

It is also associated with money. Pledging a sum of money is the act of donating money, usually to an organisation or charity. Pledging in terms of law refers to when someone’s possessions are taken by a lender until the borrower is able to pay the lender money.

ALSO...

Have you ever heard an American say “I pledge allegiance to the flag”? This is known as the Pledge of Allegiance and is recited by American citizens to show loyalty and respect to their country.

Guarantee

If you are guaranteeing something, you are making sure that something will happen. It is a way to assure others that it is certain to happen.

“I can guarantee that the house will be finished by Monday.”

“I guarantee you, she will leave.”

“I guarantee you’ll be happy with your present.”

Guaranteeing is also often associated with buying products, with the promise that whatever you buy will be of good quality and meet your expectations. Have you ever heard of the terms 'money-back guarantee' or 'satisfaction guarantee'? This ensures that if you buy a product and are not satisfied with it, you will be able to get a refund.

Swear

This does not mean the use of profanity. Instead, it refers to the act of firmly stating that what you are saying is true, or that you will definitely carry out an action.

“I swear I will finish painting the walls.”

“I swear I’m telling the truth.”

“I didn’t hit him, I swear.”

ALSO...

Have you ever heard of the common phrases “I swear on [person’s name] life” or “I swear to God”?

Often, when people swear something is true, they use the names of people they love and respect to give witness to their truth and to hold themselves accountable. This is not to say that anything bad will happen if you swear on someone’s life and lie… It is more about consciously being aware of telling the truth or ensuring you carry out the action you told yourself/others you would do.

Offer

Offers are chances for the speaker to freely volunteer to do something for the benefit of the listener. In doing so, they are agreeing to give something to the listener. They are often asked as a question, which gives the listener the option to either accept or deny. However, this is not always the case as they can also be uttered as a statement that can either be responded to with acceptance or denial.

"Can I offer you a drink?"

"I'd love to offer you a place at this college."

"I can give you money if you like?"

Refuse

By refusing to do something, you are indicating that you are not going to do something. This could refer to telling someone you are not doing something or could be in response to an offer from someone. Refusing is not used in a positive circumstance, so is an example of negation as it is used to deny something.

"I refuse your offer."

"I'm definitely not going to help you."

"I can't carry on working, I refuse."

Threat

A threat is a way for the speaker to express the intention to cause harm or discomfort to the listener. It is often used as a way to intimidate the listener and warn them of the consequences so they change their actions or behaviours.

"If you don't stop playing music, there will be consequences."

"I will hit you if you keep on being annoying."

"I will tell everyone. This is a threat, not a promise."

Commissives - Key takeaways

  • Commissive speech acts are used as a way to make sure the speaker commits to something.
  • Commissives can be positive or negative; either doing something or not doing it.
  • Examples of commissives are: promise, vow, pledge, guarantee, swear, offer, refuse, threat.

1J. Searle. A Classification of Illocutionary Acts. 1976.

Commissives

An example of a commissive is to make a promise, such as by saying "I promise I'll buy us dinner next time."

A commissive speech act is an utterance said by a speaker that ensures they will or will not do something and will stay committed to it.

There are lots of different types of commissive speech acts! Some examples include: promises, vows, offers, refusals and threats.

Final Commissives Quiz

Question

What is a pinky promise?

Show answer

Answer

The gesture of two people interlocking pinkies to signify the making of a promise.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of a commissive speech act?


A. State

B. Pledge

C. Ask

Show answer

Answer

B. Pledge

Show question

Question

Which of the following is NOT an example of a commissive speech act?


A. Threat

B. Vow

C. Congratulate

Show answer

Answer

C. Congratulate

Show question

Question

"I can pay now if you like?" is an example of which type of commissive?

Show answer

Answer

Offer

Show question

Question

"I'm really not going to go out" is an example of which type of commissive?

Show answer

Answer

Refuse

Show question

Question

"I will take away your phone if you keep misbehaving" is an example of which type of commissive?

Show answer

Answer

Threat

Show question

Question

A vow is often associated with which western ceremony?

Show answer

Answer

A wedding.

Show question

Question

Promises are never broken.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False.


Promises can be broken! 

Show question

Question

Threats are positive acts that are used to reward a listener.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False.


Threats are used to intimidate and warn a listener!

Show question

Question

What does it mean when Americans say "I pledge allegiance to the flag"?

Show answer

Answer

They are showing loyalty and respect to their country.

Show question

Question

Vows and pledges can be considered serious promises.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Guaranteeing is an example of a commissive speech act. BUT what else can a guarantee refer to?

Show answer

Answer

Buying products (e.g. money-back guarantee).

Show question

Question

What does it mean to swear on someone's life?

Show answer

Answer

By swearing on someone's life, you are giving witness to you telling truth and are holding yourself accountable.

Show question

Question

Offers can only be questions.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False.


Offers don't always have to be asked as a question, for example: "I'd like to offer you this job."

Show question

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