An utterance with the same propositional content may have different pragmatic components. They are different speech acts. Speech acts are simply things people do through language, a group of utterances with asingle interactional function, for example, apologizing, instructing, menacing, explaining something, etc. The use of these speech acts depends on the speech situation. Speech situation is defined as contexts of language use such as ceremonies, fights, hunts, classrooms, conferences, parties, etc. Here, we also use as what we called speech events which is a unified set of components throughout the same purpose of communication, same topic, same participants, and same language variety, for example exchanging greetings, telling jokes, giving speeches.

According to Cohen (1996), speech acts are functional unit at utterance level (e.g., thanking, requesting, etc.). while Hatch (1992) defined speech events as larger unit with multiple turns (e.g., job interview, etc.). The term ‘speech act’ was coined by the philosopher John Austin and developed by another philosopher John Searle (Speech Acts, 1969). John Austin is the person who is usually credited with pragmatics and speech act theory. His ideas of language were set out in a series of lectures later published under the title “How to do things with words” (1962). His first step was to show that some utterances are not statements or questions but actions. People perform actions via utterances. He reached this conclusion through an analysis of what he termed ‘performative verbs’.


Let us consider the following sentences:

  • I pronounce you man and wife.
  • I declare war on France.
  • I name this ship The Albatros.
  • I bet you 5 dollars it will rain.
  • I apologize.

The peculiar thing about these sentences, according to J. Austin, is that they are not used to say or describe things, but rather actively to do things.

It is also shown in this sentence “You are fired.” The boss’s utterance in this sentence can perform the act of ending someone’s employement. Let’s consider these utterances.

  • You’re so delicious. (compliment performed)
  • You’re welcome. (acknowledgement of thanks performed)
  • You’re crazy. (the expression of surprise performed)

From those examples, we know that the hearer or addressee will perform actions upon the utterances given. Here, the actions performed via utterances are generally called speech acts.

Felicity Conditions

In How to Do Things with Words, Austin identifies three distinct levels of action beyond the act of utterance itself. He distinguishes the act of saying something, what one does in saying it, and what one does by saying it.

J. Austin specified the circumstances required for their success as felicity conditions. Felicity conditions cover expected or appropriate circumstances for the performance of a speech act to be recognized as intended. For example this utterance, I sentence you to six months in prison. The performance will be infelicitous (inappropriate) if the speaker is not a specific person in a special context (in this case, a judge in a courtroom). The success fulness of felicity conditions depends on the following criteria:

  • The persons and circumstances must be appropriate.
  • The act must be executed completely and correctly by all participants.
  • The participants must have the appropriate intentions.

A speech act is infelicitous when

  • it is illogical, for example, I promise to call you last year.
  • requirements aren’t met: I will buy you a Porsche, honey.
  • it is a lie: I really like your new jacket.

Yule proposes further classification of felicity conditions into five classes: general conditions, content conditions, preparatory conditions, sincerity conditions and essential conditions (Yule, 1996: 50). They are elaborated as follow:

  • General conditions presuppose the participants’ knowledge of the language being used and his non-play acting.
  • Content conditions concern the appropriate content of an utterance.
  • Preparatory conditions deal with differences of various illocutionary acts (e.g. those of promising or warning).
  • Sincerity conditions count with speaker’s intention to carry out a certain act.
  • Essential conditions combine with a specification of what must be in the utterance content, the context, and the speaker’s intentions, in order for a specific act to be appropriately (felicitously) performed.

The Performatives Hypothesis

It is Austin who comes up with a new category of utterances, the performatives. Austin defines a performative as an utterance which contains a special type of verb (a performative verb) by force of which it performs an action. In other words, in using a performative, a person is not just saying something but is actually doing something (Wardhaugh: 1992: 283). Austin further states that a performative, unlike a constative, cannot be true or false constative (it can only be felicitous or infelicitous) and that it does not describe, report or constate anything.

He also claims that from the grammatical point of view, a performative is a first person indicative active sentence in the simple present tense. In order to distinguish the performative use from other possible uses of first person indicative active pattern, Austin introduces a hereby test since he finds out that performative verbs only can collocate with this adverb.

Explicit and Implicit Performatives

Having defined performatives, Austin then draws a basic distinction between them. He distinguishes two general groups – explicit and implicit performatives. This can be illustrated as follow:

 Let us compare the sentences:

1.      a. The work was done by Dalia and myself.

         b. I hereby tell you that the work was done by Dalia and myself.

2.      a. Clean up this mess!

         b. I hereby order you that you clean up this mess.

Here, we know that implicit performative are taken place in 1b and 2b, and explicit performative are performed in 1a and 2a. Those also happen in the examples below:

  • I promise I will come tomorrow – I will come tomorrow;
  • I swear I love you – I love you.

Three Related Acts (Three-Fold Distinction)

The action performed by producing an utterance will consist of three related acts (a three-fold distinction). Those are locutionary act, illocutionary act, and perlocutionary act. The locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts are, in fact, three basic components with the help of which a speech act is formed (Leech, 1983: 199). Leech briefly defines them:

  • locutionary act: performing an act of saying something
  • illocutionary act: performing an act in saying something
  • perlocutionary act: performing an act by saying something.

Locutionary Act

Locutionart act is the basic act of utterance, or producing a meaningful linguistic expression or uttering a sentence. If you have difficulty with actually forming the sounds and words to create a meaningful utterance (because you are a foreigner or tongue-tied) then you might fail to produce a locutionary act: it often happens when we learn a foreign language.

Illocutionary Act

Illocutionary act takes place when we form an utterance with some kind of function on mind, with a definite communicative intention or illocutionary force. The notion of illocutionary force is basic for pragmatics.

Illocutionary Force Indicating Devices (IFIDs)

Illocutionary force indicating devices (IFIDs), are supposed to be elements, or aspects of linguistic devices which indicate either (dependent on which conceptions of “illocutionary force” and “illocutionary act” are adopted) that the utterance is made with a certain illocutionary force, or else that it constitutes the performance of a certain illocutionary act.

In English, for example, the interrogative mood is supposed to indicate that the utterance is (intended as) a question; the directive mood indicates that the utterance is (intended as) a directive illocutionary act (an order, a request, etc.); the words “I promise” are supposed to indicate that the utterance is (intended as) a promise. Possible IFIDs in English include: word order, stress, intonation contour, punctuation, the mood of the verb, and performative verbs.

Perlocutionary Act

Perlocutionary act is the effect that the utterance has on the hearer. It reveals the effect the speaker wants to exercise over the hearer. This is also known as the perlocutionary effect. Perlocutionary effect may be verbal, for instance I’ve bought a car – Great!, and non-verbal, for example It’s cold here – and you close the window.

Classifications of Speech Acts

John Searle proposed a detailed classification of speech acts. His speech act classification includes five major classes of speech acts: declarations, representatives, expressives, directives, and commissives.

Speech act type

Direction of fit

S – speaker

X – situation

Direct Speech Acts

Direct speech acts is shown when the syntactic form of utterance reflects the direct illocutionary act, for instance, “What is the time?” In this sentence, interrogative form is used to ask a question.

Indirect Speech Acts

Indirect speech acts are cases in which the syntactic form of an utterance does not reflect any direct illocutionary acts. It is used to perform an indirect illocutionary act.

Classification of Speech Acts by G. Potcheptsov

This classification is based on purely linguistic principles. The main criterion for pragmatic classification of utterances is the way of expressing communicative intention.

This classification includes six basic speech acts (constatives, promissives, menacives, performatives, directives, and questions).


1. An Illocutionary Force Indicating Device (IFID) is a piece of language that signals what kind of speech act is being performed, for example, Would you pass me the salt, please?

2. Perfomatives are sentences or expressions that make the kind of illocutionary force of an utterance explicit. For examples:

  • I hereby name this ship H.M.S. Titanic.
  • The United Nations condemns this terrible act.
  • We declare the winner to be Mr. John Smith of Springfield

3. Felicity conditions determine whether or not a speech act is successful.

4. An indirect speech act masks one type of act (the primary one) as something else (the secondary one). Example: It’s pretty cold in here.

  • secondary speech act: assertion about temperature
  • primary speech act: request to close the window

5. There are five types of general functions performed by speech acts: declarations, representatives, expressives, directives, and commissives. For example:

  • DECLARATIVES: We find the defendant guilty.
  • REPRESENTATIVES: It was a warm sunny day.
  • EXPRESSIVES: I’m really sorry!
  • DIRECTIVES: Don’t touch that!
  • COMMISIVES: I’ll be back.

6. Searle (1969) identified the various different types of speech act:

  • REPRESENTATIVES: such as informing, e.g., ‘It is raining’
  • DIRECTIVES: attempts to get the hearer to do something e.g., ‘please make the tea’
  • COMMISIVES: which commit the speaker to doing something, e.g., ‘I promise to… ’
  • EXPRESSIVES: whereby a speaker expresses a mental state, e.g., ‘thank you!’
  • DECLARATIONS: such as declaring war.


Austin, J. L. 1962. How to Do Things With Words, New York: Oxford University Press.

Cohen, A. D. 1996. ‘Developing the ability to perform speech acts’, in Studies of Second Language Acquisition, vol. 18, pp. 253-267.

Leech, G. 1983. Principles of Pragmatics, London: Longman.

Levinson, S. 1983. Pragmatics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mey, J. 1993. Pragmatics. An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell.

Searle, J. 1969. Speech Acts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thomas, J. 1995. Meaning in Interaction: An Introduction to Pragmatics, London: Longman.

Wardhaugh, R. 1992. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Second Edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Yule, G. 1996. Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About nawangwulan19

Be GREAT in ACT, as you've been in THOUGHT!!!

Posted on April 11, 2013, in Learning English, Pragmatics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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