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speech act


speech act

J. L. Austin, How to Do Things With Words, 2nd ed., edited by J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà (Harvard University Press, 1975)


In linguistics, an utterance defined in terms of a speaker's intention and the effect it has on a listener.

Speech-act theory, as introduced by Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin (How to Do Things With Words, 1962) and further developed by American philosopher J.R. Searle, considers the types of acts that utterances can be said to perform:

See also:


Term derived from the work of J. L. Austin and popularized by John Searle

Examples and Observations:

  • "[I]n order to explain what can go wrong with statements we cannot just concentrate on the proposition involved (whatever that is) as has been done traditionally. We must consider the total situation in which the utterance is issued--the total speech-act--if we are to see the parallel between statements and performative utterances, and how each can go wrong. So the total speech act in the total speech situation is emerging from logic piecemeal as important in special cases: and thus we are assimilating the supposed constative utterance to the perfomative."
    (J. L. Austin, How to Do Things With Words, 2nd ed., ed. by J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà. Harvard Univ. Press, 1975)

  • "We use the term speech act to describe actions such as 'requesting,' 'commanding,' 'questioning,' or 'informing.' We can define a speech act as the action performed by a speaker with an utterance. If you say, I'll be there at six, you are not just speaking, you seem to be performing the speech act of 'promising.'

    "When an interrogative structure such as Did you . . .? Are they . . .? or Can we . . .? is used with the function of a question, it is described as a direct speech act. For example, when we don't know something and we ask someone to provide the information, we usually produce a direct speech act such as Can you ride a bicycle?

    "Compare that utterance with Can you pass the salt? [Here] we are not really asking a question about someone's ability. In fact, we don't normally use this structure as a question at all. . . . This is an example of an indirect speech act."
    (G. Yule, The Study of Language. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006)

  • "Several categories of speech acts have been proposed, viz. directives (speakers try to get their listeners to do something, e.g. begging, commanding, requesting), commissives (speakers commit themselves to a future course of action, e.g. promising, guaranteeing), expressives (speakers express their feelings, e.g. apologizing, welcoming, sympathizing), declarations (the speaker's utterance brings about a new external situation, e.g. christening, marrying, resigning) . . .."
    (D. Crystal, Dictionary of Linguistics. Blackwell, 1997)

  • "Rhetoricians, adhering to a speech act theory approach, need to study more than the words uttered during a communication transaction. Indeed, the assumptions, norms, roles, and stances taken by the speaker and listener need to be thoroughly described and categorized. Such an undertaking is a viable and necessary direction for the rhetorician wishing to have a firm understanding and appreciation of discourse."
    (James L. Golden, The Rhetoric of Western Thought, 8th ed. Kendall Hunt, 2003)
Also Known As: illocutionary act

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