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Speech Acts

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English

'Language describes the world around us'. That's the common view. A sentence (for example, 'it's cold in here, isn't it?') Describes a situation. But is there more going on than that? When we speak, are we only ever describing the world around us? Or are we also somehow 'acting within it'. Speech Act theory says that when we speak we are also 'acting in the world'. What we say has a descriptive meaning, but it may also have an effect on those around us, causing them to act, or think, or respond in particular ways to what we say.

Our words have the power to cause things to happen. If someone says 'It's cold in here, isn't it?', Are they simply describing a state of affairs, or trying to act to change it, by getting someone to close the window?

Searle's five types of speech acts

John Searle classified the purpose of different speech acts under the following 5 categories: Declarations, assertives, expressives, directives , and commissives .

Let's take a look at each category and some examples.

Declarations - The speaker declares something that has the potential to bring about a change in the world.

'I now declare you husband and wife.'

'You're fired!'

Assertives - The speaker asserts an idea, opinion, or suggestion. The speaker presents 'facts' of the world, such as statements and claims.

'Paris is the capital of France.'

'I watched a great documentary last night.'

Expressives - The speaker states something about their psychological attitudes and their attitudes towards a situation. This could be an apology, a welcome, or an expression of gratitude.

I'm so sorry about yesterday. '

'I really appreciate your help.'

Directives - The speaker intends to get the listener to do something. This could be by giving an order, offering advice, or making a request.

'Pass me the salt please.'

'You should not drink that!'

Commissives - The speaker commits to doing something in the future. This could be making a promise, a plan, a vow, or a bet.

'I'll see you at 6 tomorrow'

'I do!'

Speech acts couple getting marries StudySmarterCommisive speech act, Hannah Morris -StudySmarter Original

What is speech act theory?

Speech act theory is a subfield of pragmatics. The theory is concerned with the way words can be used to not only give information but also to perform certain actions, or to cause others to perform them.

The philosopher JL Austin first introduced Speech Act theory in his book How To Do Things With Words. 1 The theory was developed by American philosopher J. R Searle. ²

Both philosophers aimed to understand the degree to which language is said to perform locutionary acts (make an utterance), illocutionary acts (say something with a purpose), and / or perlocutionary acts (say something that causes others to act). Are you feeling overwhelmed by these big terms? Don't worry, we will cover them in more depth shortly!

Speech act theory recognizes language as a vehicle for activity and states that utterances often do more than just reflect meaning. L anguage can be used to get things done and to accomplish objectives within specific situations.

Today, speech act theory is used in linguistics, philosophy, psychology, legal theory, and even in AI as a way of helping us to understand human communication.

Locutionary, Illocutionary, and Perlocutionary Speech Acts

Let's take at each one of these in more detail.

Locutionary acts

A locutionary act is the basic production of an utterance, comprising all of its verbal, social, and rhetorical meanings.

Locutionary acts can be broken into two main types: utterance acts and propositional acts.

Utterance acts can be any form of sound and do not necessarily have to be intelligible. In contrast, propositional acts must express a definable point. For example, a grunt would be an utterance act and a statement would be a propositional act. Propositional acts typically refer to the literal meaning of the speech act.

Charly sees a spider and says, 'Eurgh, I hate spiders'.

Here is an example of a propositional act. The literal meaning is that Charly does not like spiders.

Illocutionary acts

An illocutionary act is the active result of the implied meaning from the locutionary act. For example, the listener makes sense of what is being said to them and can then apply any implied meaning to the utterance.

Charly sees a spider and says, 'Eurgh, I hate spiders'.

As an illocutionary act, the listener can infer that Charly hates spiders and probably does not want this one near her.

Perlocutionary acts

A perlocutionary act is the effect the locutionary and illocutionary acts have on the listener. A perlocutionary act can influence others to change their behavior or their thoughts and feelings. Perlocutionary acts are sometimes referred to as a perlocutionary effect or perlocutionary force. Think of the effect of a speech act 'forcing' you to change your behavior in some way.

Charly sees a spider and says, 'Eurgh, I hate spiders'.

Based on the previous implied understanding that Charly probably doesn't want the spider near her, the listener may get up and remove the spider.

Take a look at the following sentence, what effect do you think this speech act could have on the listener?

" Spending too much time on your phone is bad for your eyes, you know ."

Think of each speech act as a sort of umbrella term for the speech act below it. For example, all perlocutionary acts are illocutionary acts, and all illocutionary acts are locutionary acts.

Illocutionary competence

Illocutionary competence refers to an individual's ability to imply and infer different meanings through speech acts. Having illocutionary competence helps us to make sense of what we are actually being told and (usually) prevents us from getting the 'wrong end of stick'.

If you are able to comprehend an utterance, figure out its implied meaning, and then act accordingly, you probably have pretty good illocutionary competence!

Speech acts Illocutionary competence StudySmarterIllocutionary competence, Hannah Morris -StudySmarter Original

Let's apply the concept of illocutionary competence to speaker B's utterance in the following conversation:

Speaker A: " Would you like to play tennis? "

Speaker B: " My racket's broken "

The propositional speech act (literal meaning) = Speaker B's racket is broken.

The illocutionary speech act (implied meaning) = Speaker B may want to play tennis but cannot because their racket is broken.

The perlocutionary speech act (effect on the listener) = Speaker A may infer that speaker B wants to play but cannot and offers them one of their rackets.

Direct and indirect speech acts

In the case of pragmatics, direct speech refers to a speech act that has a direct relationship between the type of sentence and its function. In contrast, indirect speech acts occur when there is an indirect relationship between the type of sentence and the function.

Let's take a look at some examples of direct and indirect speech acts.

'Did you get any milk?'

This is an interrogative sentence that aims to elicit an answer. There is a direct relationship between the sentence type and the function; it is direct speech.

'I wonder whether you got any milk.'

Here the speaker wants to know whether or not milk was bought. However, they have used a declarative sentence and not an interrogative sentence. There isn't a direct relationship between the sentence type and the function, so this is an example of indirect speech.

Types of Speech Act - key takeaways

  • A speech act is an action that is performed in saying something.

  • Speech act theory is a subfield of pragmatics concerned with the way utterances can be used not only to give information but also to accomplish certain objectives.

  • Speech act theory was first introduced by JL Austin and further developed by the philosopher JR Searle.

  • There are three main actions related to speech acts: locutionary act, illocutionary act, and perlocutionary act (sometimes referred to as locutionary force, illocutionary force, and perlocutionary force).

  • Illocutionary competence refers to a person's ability to imply and infer meaning from speech acts.


¹ J. L Austin, How to do things with words , 1962

² J. R Searle, Speech Acts, 1969.

Speech Acts

A speech act is an action that is performed in saying something. We perform speech acts all of the time! For example, when we offer an apology, extend an invitation, make a complaint, or give a compliment.

Speech act theory is concerned with the way words can be used to not only give information but also to perform certain actions. The theory, created by J. L Austin and further developed by J. R Searle, is an important subfield of pragmatics. 


Searle classified the purpose of different speech acts under the following 5 categories: Declarations, Assertives, Expressives, Directives, and Commissives


 In the case of pragmatics, direct speech refers to a speech act that has a direct relationship between the type of sentence and the function.

Final Speech Acts Quiz

Question

What is a speech act?

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Answer

An action that is performed in saying something.

Show question

Question

Who introduced the concept of speech act theory in his book How to do things with words?


Show answer

Answer

J. L Austin

Show question

Question

J. R Searle classified speech acts into 5 categories. What are they?


Show answer

Answer

Declarations, assertives, expressives, directives, and commissives. 


Show question

Question

According to Austin and Searle, there are three main actions related to speech acts: locutionary act, illocutionary act and what?


Show answer

Answer

Perlocutionary act.

Show question

Question

Which speech act aims to change the behavior of others?

  1. Locutionary act

  2. Illocutionary act

  3. Perlocutionary act

Show answer

Answer

C. Perlocutionary act.


Show question

Question

According to Searle's 5 types of speech acts, what is the purpose of commissives


Show answer

Answer

The speaker is committing to do something in the future.

Show question

Question

According to Searle's 5 types of speech acts, what is the purpose of  expressives ?


Show answer

Answer

The speaker states something about their psychological attitudes and their attitudes towards a situation.

Show question

Question

The following sentence is an example of which of Searle's 5 types of speech acts: 'I now declare you husband and wife.' 


Show answer

Answer

Declarative.

Show question

Question

The following sentence is an example of which of Searle's 5 types of speech acts: ' Can you close the window, please? '


Show answer

Answer

Directive. 

Show question

Question

What is direct speech in pragmatics?


Show answer

Answer

Direct speech is a speech act that has a direct relationship between the type of sentence and the function.

Show question

Question

What punctuation does a declarative sentence end with?

Show answer

Answer

A full stop.

Show question

Question

A declarative is a type of:

A. Locutionary act

B. Illocutionary act

C: Perlocutionary act

Show answer

Answer

B. Illocutionary act

Show question

Question

A declarative sentence is the most common type of sentence in the English langauge.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True!

Show question

Question

What are the two types of declaratives?

Show answer

Answer

Verdictives and effectives.

Show question

Question

What is the meaning of a direct speech act?

Show answer

Answer

A direct speech act refers to when the structure of an utterance has a direct relationship to its function.

Show question

Question

Delivering a guilty verdict is an example of:


A. A verdictive declarative

B. An effective declarative

C: An interrogative

Show answer

Answer

A. A verdictive declarative.

Show question

Question

Declaratives can be direct speech acts OR indirect speech acts.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True.


Declaratives can be either direct or indirect, depending on what can be implied.

Show question

Question

"Pass me the butter" is an example of which type of directive?

Show answer

Answer

Ordering/commanding.

Show question

Question

"Can you tell me where room 6 is please?" is an example of which type of directive?

Show answer

Answer

Requesting.

Show question

Question

"Would you like to go on a walk with me?" is an example of which type of directive?

Show answer

Answer

Inviting.

Show question

Question

"I think maybe you should do this instead?" is an example of which type of directive?

Show answer

Answer

Suggesting/advising.

Show question

Question

"What is your favourite colour?" is an example of which type of directive?

Show answer

Answer

Asking/questioning.

Show question

Question

"I NEED a phone, PLEASE can I get one?" is an example of which type of directive?

Show answer

Answer

Begging.

Show question

Question

At the very least, what does a declarative sentence consist of?


A. A subject and a verb.

B. Just a verb.

C. A subject and an object.

Show answer

Answer

A. A subject and a verb.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of an expressive verb?


A. Running

B. Congratulating

C. Holding

Show answer

Answer

B. Congratulating

Show question

Question

An expressive speech act conveys a speaker's emotions about themselves and the world.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is NOT an example of an expressive speech act?


A. Thanking

B. Laughing

C. Apologising

Show answer

Answer

B. Laughing

Show question

Question

"I'm sorry I broke your lamp" is an example of which type of expressive?

Show answer

Answer

Apologising

Show question

Question

"Nice to finally meet you!" is an example of which type of expressive?

Show answer

Answer

Greeting

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of boasting?


A. I've won so many writing contests.

B. I have three pet rats.

C. I had an awful day today.

Show answer

Answer

A. I've won so many writing contests.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of congratulating?


A. I love your shirt!

B. You're really smart!

C. Well done for passing your test!

Show answer

Answer

C. Well done for passing your test!

Show question

Question

Which of the following is NOT an example of lamenting?


A. I fell over and now my leg is killing me.

B. My cat went missing last night.

C. I went skiing today and had the best time.

Show answer

Answer

C. I went skiing today and had the best time.

Show question

Question

Condoling is the same as congratulating.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False.


Think of condoling as the opposite of congratulating!

Show question

Question

Deploring refers to when a speaker tells off the listener.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Forgiving refers to the act of holding a grudge against someone.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of an expressive speech act?


A. Stating

B. Boasting

C. Requesting

Show answer

Answer

B. Boasting.

Show question

Question

An apology is only used to take responsibility for something you have done.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False.


It can be used in other ways, such as expressing sympathy.

Show question

Question

"You are in my thoughts during this difficult time" is an example of which type of expressive?

Show answer

Answer

Condoling.

Show question

Question

Expressives are only used to express negative emotions.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False.


They can be used to express both positive and negative emotions.

Show question

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

Swearing is an example of a commissive speech act. BUT what else can swearing mean?

Show answer

Answer

Using profanity (swear words).

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

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