Pragmatic Aspects of Meaning II: Speech Acts,
Reading: Meaning and Grammar, pg. 220-255
• What kinds of things do speakers do by uttering sentences? Speakers
perform SPEECH ACTS.
• Austin (1962) says that when a speaker utters a sentence, s/he may perform
three types of acts: locutionary act, illocutionary act and perlocutionary act.
• Locutionary act: an act of uttering a sentence with a certain sense and
reference, which is roughly equivalent to ‘meaning’ in the traditional sense.
The ﬁnal exam will be difﬁcult.
The locutionary act performed in uttering a declarative sentence can be
thought of as the act of stating, placing the proposition in question in the
common ground of some discourse.
Speech Acts (cont.)
• Illocutionary act: an act of performing some action in saying something.
By uttering (1), the speaker may be performing the act of informing, claiming,
guessing, reminding, warning, threatening, or requesting.
We also say that utterances are associated with illocutionary forces.
In some cases, speakers can make what illocutionary act they intend to
a. The ﬁnal exam will be difﬁcult. That is a threat.
b. The ﬁnal exam will be difﬁcult. I guess.
c. The ﬁnal exam will be difﬁcult. I am warning you.
d. The ﬁnal exam will be difﬁcult. Let me remind you.
• Perlocutionary act: what speakers bring about or achieve by saying
something, such as convincing, persuading, deterring.
By uttering (1), I may have achieved in convincing you to study harder for the
Our General Approach to Illocutionary Forces
• How can a declarative with a sentential force of stating be associated with all
these different illocutionary forces?
Do we want to say that declaratives are semantically ambiguous because it
can perform all these different types of illocutionary acts?
• We will pursue the approach that the meaning of the sentential force
associated with a declarative sentence is not semantically ambiguous. We
will keep the approach that its meaning is a function that changes the
We want to characterize the meaning of a declarative sufﬁciently abstract
enough so that it can accommodate a wide range of illocutionary actions.
The illocutionary force associated with a sentence do not belong to the realm
of semantics proper.
The principles of pragmatics accounts for the possible illocutionary forces
associated with utterances.
• A performative utterance does not simply convey a message, but performs
some action or initiates a state that the content of the declarative describes.
That is, the primary meaning of a performative utterance seems to be coming
from the illocutionary force associated with it.
a. We ﬁnd the defendant guilty as charged.
b. I bid three clubs.
c. I promise to split any lottery winnings with you.
d. You’re ﬁred.
e. You may have dessert tonight.
f. Gentlemen are requested to wear jackets and ties to dinner.
• Performative utterances do not make statements, unlike ordinary
declaratives. Rather, by uttering (3b), the speaker is making a bid and by
uttering (3c), the speaker is making a promise.
Performative Utterances (cont.)
• It doesn’t make sense to say that performative utterances are true or false.
What is special about them is that the utterance itself is what makes the
circumstances ﬁt the words. That is, the utterance of sentence S brings into
existence the very facts that S describes.
• While performative utterances cannot be said to be true or false, they can be
said to be felicitous or infelicitous.
Austin notes that certain conventions called felicity conditions regulate the
use of performative utterances.
If felicity conditions governing the use of a certain form fail to be satisﬁed,
then the use of the form may misﬁre.
For instance, one of the felicity conditions for uttering We ﬁnd the defendant
guilty as charged is that the speaker has the authority to issue a verdict.
Performative Utterances (cont.)
• Does this all mean that performative utterances are semantically distinct from
ordinary declaratives that make statements?
Does this mean that the meaning of performative utterances cannot be
handled by truth-conditional semantics and that they do not update the
common ground, contrary to other declaratives?
– Performative utterances are self-verifying. By virtue of stating a
performative utterance, a situation is created, and thus a true statement is
– We can take the performative utterance to expand the common ground
like any other declaratives.
For instance, as soon as (3b) is uttered, the proposition that the utterer
bid three clubs is entered into the common ground. Subsequent
utterances or actions of the players will be such that they are consistent
with this proposition.
– Performative utterances are associated with various illocutionary forces,
such as promising, ﬁring, bidding, warning, etc.
• Performative hypothesis: all sentences are performative utterances at some
I ‘performative verb’ you that S
The verbs that specify the illocutionary acts being performed is called
PERFORMATIVE VERBS: e.g., promise, warn, threat, declare, ask, order,
request, predict, etc.
a. I’ll send you an email next week.
I promise to you that I’ll send you an email next week.
b. The ﬁnal exam will be difﬁcult.
I warn you that the ﬁnal exam will be difﬁcult.
c. Send me an email next week.
I request to you that you send me an email next week.
Performative Hypothesis (cont.)
• Performative hypothesis implies that all sentences have truth values,
including imperatives and interrogatives. All sentences are predicted to be
true by virtue of simply uttering them.
a. Was the exam hard?
I ask you if the exam was hard.
b. Go home!
I order you to go home.
• Performative hypothesis implies that a simple declarative and the
performative version have the same meaning, hence the same truth values.
But while (7a) can be false, (7b) is always true by virtue of uttering it.
a. Grass is purple.
b. I say to you that grass is purple.
• Performative hypothesis tries to incorporate illocutionary force associated
with sentences into the realm of semantics. But this is not tenable, as clearly
a simple declarative and its corresponding performative version do not have
the same truth conditions.
We’d better leave illocutionary forces in the domain of pragmatics.
More on why we don’t want illocutionary force to be part of
literal linguistic meaning
• A sentence can be associated with several different illocutionary forces,
depending on the discourse context.
If illocutionary forces were a matter of linguistic meaning, then we would have
to say that sentences are in general ambiguous.
But then what would be the source of this ambiguity?
The fact that an utterance can express different illocutionary forces is a
matter of assumptions and attitudes of the speaker toward the propositional
content expressed by the utterance.