Speech Act Theory 101: From Greetings to Threats

Today is Inauguration Day, when Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States. This has me thinking about speech act theory, the difference between a locution and an illocution, appropriateness conditions, and performative speech acts, among other things.

(Wow, maybe I should just contemplate the politics and ceremony of it like everyone else…)

But I can’t! You see, the presidential oath of office is a perfect way to understand speech act theory—or part of it, at least. We’ll get to that later in the post.

Speech Act Theory

But first things first. Speech act theory is a theory of language that says that our utterances (the things we say) aren’t just about words and their dictionary definitions. Our utterances can accomplish things and bring about various actions.

You’re likely to come across two names again and again when you research the theory: J.L. Austin and John R. Searle. In fact, Austin’s 1962 book was about the performative potential of language—it’s called How to Do Things with Words.

For his part, Searle refined and tweaked what Austin posited. But there’s disagreement among linguists and philosophers about how closely aligned the two men’s theories are.

I won’t delve into that debate here. The purpose of this post is to give you an overview of speech act theory as well as what a speech act is and what it can do. In addition, the speech act examples I share will make the abstract much easier to grasp.

What’s a Speech Act?

Speech acts are nothing more than the actions that occur thanks to language. For example, we use language to compliment and persuade, to beg or scold, and to ask for and give information.

In other words, we do things with language, even though those things may not be physical actions like swimming, smiling, or taking an elevator.

Commands, greetings, and assessments are all speech acts. A promise is a speech act. So is an insult.

In each case, the speaker is trying to achieve something and is using language to do it.

Types of Speech Act

There’s disagreement over how many types of speech act there are and how to label them. In researching this article, I’ve seen as few as four types of speech act and as many as six. The names for those acts change, too, based on which source you’re reading.

Still, there are a few types that come up repeatedly in the literature:

  1. Representatives (aka constatives) involve (or “represent”) a state of things. These are assertions, announcements, statements, claims, denials, disclosures, etc. An example sentence is I like cheese.
  2. Commissives, as the name suggests, commit a speaker to do something. These are promises, pledges, vows, guarantees, and so on. The utterance I’ll pick you up at 8 pm is a commissive.
  3. Directives are designed to get the listener to act in some way. These are admonishments, questions, dismissals, excuses, instructions, orders, requests, warnings, etc. An example is I dare you to eat that entire bowl of wasabi!
  4. Expressives (aka acknowledgments) let speakers convey their attitude or psychological state. These are apologies, condolences, congratulations, greetings, thanks, and so on. I’m sorry to hear about your mom’s illness is an expressive.

Note: The linguist Edward Finegan lists two other types—declarations and verdictives—in his book Language: Its Structure and Use.

The labels for speech act types depend on who’s doing the labeling. Other types beyond those mentioned above include declarations and verdictives.

Locution vs. Illocution

A locution is the phrase or sentence that has meaning (vocabulary) and structure (grammar). For example, the sentence Pass the salt involves 1) the physical action of conveying from one person to another and 2) a crystalline compound used to flavor food. That’s the meaning.

But it also has a structure, some of which, like word order, is obvious. We have to say Pass the salt. We can’t say Pass salt the, Salt the pass, or any other variation. (Unless you’re Yoda.)

Other parts of grammatical structure are less obvious (at least in English), such as verb forms. Pass (not passes) is the imperative form.

Speech act theory maintains that every act has three main parts: the locution, the illocution, and the perlocution.

The illocution is the intention of the speaker. The person saying Pass the salt says so because—wait for it—she wants the salt. Her intent, in other words, is to end up with the salt shaker in her hand so she can use it.

There’s a third part of speech acts called the perlocution, but I won’t get into it here other than to say that it involves the listener. It’s the effect on the hearer of the utterance, what is also called “uptake.”

speech act theory, pronouncement

The locution “I now pronounce you husband and wife” is part of a declarative speech act.

Speech Act Examples

The Presidential Oath of Office

Let’s look at a few speech act examples. As I wrote earlier, the inspiration for this post was the presidential oath of office that Trump recited earlier today. It’s a great example of a speech act.

In fact, it’s got a lot in common with marriages, blessings, and baptisms. What do I mean by that?

Well, Finegan includes declarations in his list of speech act types. A declaration actually brings about the state of things that they name.

For example, when your boss says, “You’re fired,” the utterance brings about the firing. (Well, there may be some paperwork for you to sign, but the point is that when your boss tells you it’s time to clean out your cubicle, then you’re out of a job.)

The presidential oath of office works the same way. Let’s look at the wording:

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Chief Justice John Roberts led President-Elect Trump in the oath. Before Trump said those words, he wasn’t the president. Then he said them and wham!—he’s the president.

That’s how declarations work. When a wedding officiant declares, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” the bride and groom are married at that very moment—not a second before.

Interestingly, the oath of office is also a commissive. Trump was making a pledge to faithfully execute the Office of President […] and preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.

The Gettysburg Address

You probably know the opening line from Abraham Lincoln’s famous address at Gettysburg:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

This is an example of a representative speech act. He made a statement—not a promise, pledge, or anything else.

The locution, you’ll recall, is the structure and meaning of the statement: “Eighty-seven years ago our ancestors came to this country, which was born out of the idea of freedom and committed to the idea that everybody has the same rights.” (Yes, I know, Lincoln is a tad more eloquent than I am.)

The illocution, or Lincoln’s intent—as near as we can guess, anyway—was to provide historical context for his listeners. (Historians, feel free to disagree with me in the comments; I’m looking at this purely from a linguistic point of view.)

The Flagpole Scene from A Christmas Story

Shifting gears just a bit brings us to one of the greatest schoolyard scenes in movie history. One character, Schwartz, dares (and eventually “triple dog dares”) his friend Flick to put his tongue on the freezing flagpole.

“I triple dog dare ya!”

A dare is a directive. Scawartz is trying to get Flick to do something, and it works. (What kid in 1950s Indiana could refuse a dare, anyway?)

Speakers’ Roles

I should point out here that a performative speech act only “works” if the right person does it.

Pretend you’re watching a ballgame on TV and a baserunner on the opposing team tries to steal second. You might yell, “He’s out!” even before the umpire makes his call.

You can yell all you want, but your utterance has no bearing on reality. And not just because you’re not physically at the game. You don’t have the authority to make the call, so as a performative speech act goes, it’s a dud. It is, however, a representative speech act.

Ditto for the actor who’s playing the part of a judge in a movie. She can recite a line such as Case dismissed, but of course it has no legal validity.

Sources and further reading:

“J.L. Austin,” Wikipedia.
Kent Bach, “Speech Acts,” entry in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Edward Finegan, Language: Its Structure and Use, Fifth Edition (Australia: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008), 282–286.

If you liked this post, then check out how hypernyms and hyponyms work or see where English gets the word “orange” from.


  1. Ellen Rosenfield August 11, 2017
    • Matthew Kushinka August 15, 2017

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