Pragmatic aspects of Syntax. Speech act theory

Speach act theory and pragmatics. Explicit and implicit performatives. The term of felicity conditions. Conditions of execution, preparatory and sincerity conditions. Types of the speech acts. The locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts.

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Chair of Theory, Practice and Translation of English

Term Paper

in Theoretical Grammar

"Pragmatic aspects of Syntax. Speech act theory"

Performed by:

Supervised by:

Associate professor

Kyiv 2012


  • Introduction
  • Chapter i. speach act theory and pragmatics
  • 1.1 Explicit and implicit performatives
  • 1.2 Felicity conditions
  • 1.2.1 Preparatory conditions
  • 1.2.2 Conditions of execution
  • 1.2.3 Sincerity conditions
  • Chapter ii. types of the speech acts
  • 2.1 The Locutionary act
  • 2.2 The Illocutionary act
  • 2.3 The Perlocutionary act
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography


Till the middle of the XX century the only function of speech acts was to describe the reality. The process of realization of language units in speech was viewed through the comparison of language and speech as a potential system of signs. Pragmatics itself studies how transmission of meaning depends not only on the linguistic knowledge of the speaker and listener, but also on the context of an utterance, knowledge about the status of those involved, the inferred intent of the speaker and so on. That is why when dealing with pragmatic syntax, in the focus of linguistic study are interrelations between language units and those who use them. Pragmatics encompasses speech act theory, as it explains how the users are able to overcome ambiguity paying attention to sociological, psychological peculiarities of those involved, time and place of an utterance. Many scholars tried to investigate the problem of speech act and some of them such as J. L. Austin, H. P. Grice, J. R. Searle, J. Lyons, Ch. Morris, P. F. Strawson have succeeded.

Topicality of this issue is that people communicate with each other every day and it is necessary to study deeper the speech acts with the purpose of establishing proper communication.

The aim of this term paper is to characterize the performatives of the speech act, to show an influence of Pragmatics on it, to classify its felicity conditions, to systematize the types of the speech acts.

To achieve this aim it is necessary to perform the following tasks:

to give explanation of the Speech act theory;

to examine different points of view on this problem;

to illustrate the examples of different types of speech acts;

to characterize different types of felicity conditions;

Object of this term paper is functioning of the Speech at theory.

Subject is to examine the Speech act theory and its types.

Chapter i. speach act theory and pragmatics

For sure, both Speech act theory and Pragmatics intend to study linguistic phenomena left unexplained by the grammatical or logical analysis of language, which constituted the orthodox view in the analytic philosophy of language during the twentieth century. This lack was already noticed at the beginning of the 20th Century in Europe by theorists such as Adolf Reinach, Alan Gardiner or Charles Morris.

But it is at Oxford in the 1950s that a group of philosophers, called "ordinary language philosophers" because they concentrated on ordinary language use rather than logical analysis, including Austin, Peter F. Strawson, Ryle, Grice, Urmson, precisely criticized logical analysis and extensional and truth-conditional conceptions of language according to which a sentence expresses a "proposition" analysable in terms of its truth-conditions. But Strawson, for instance, is well-known for having been the first to undermine Russell's logical conception of meaning and denotation and for having shown that "referring" is a pragmatic action, rather than a purely linguistic one, in emphasizing the role of pragmatic presuppositions in that process: according to him, in order to refer, certain presuppositions need to be in order (which does not mean that they need to be asserted or meant) in certain uses of language. It was one of the first step towards a pragmatic account of language use. But pragmatic reflections have really emerged on the philosophical scene with what is called "Speech acts theory”, which essentially originates in the pioneer and revolutionary work of Austin (1911-1960). He considers that the truth-conditional account of language use (as it has been proposed by Logical Positivist) is faulty because of a "descriptive illusion” which leads to suppose that language mainly aims at saying true things, at transmitting a certain "content" or piece of information about something (the world or the speaker's thought about it). Now Austin wants to emphasize pragmatic phenomena arising in speech: more precisely the fact that discourse may accomplish action.

1.1 Explicit and implicit performatives

It is Austin who introduces basic terms and areas to study and he also comes up with a new category of utterances - the performatives.

Performatives are historically the first speech acts to be examined within the theory of speech acts. 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 [21,283]. Austin further states that a performative, unlike a constative, cannot be true or false (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.

This criterion is ambiguous though and that is why, 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.

a. I hereby resign from the post of the President of the Czech Republic.

b. I hereby get up at seven o'clock in the morning every day.

While the first sentence would make sense under specific conditions, uttering of the second would be rather strange. From this it follows that (a) is a performative, (b) is not.

Having defined performatives, Austin then draws a basic distinction between them. He distinguishes two general groups - explicit and implicit performatives. An explicit performative is one in which the utterance inscription contains an expression that makes explicit what kind of act is being performed [9,175]. An explicit performative includes a performative verb and mainly therefore, as Thomas [20,47] claims, it can be seen to be a mechanism which allows the speaker to remove any possibility of misunderstanding the force behind an utterance.

a. I order you to leave.

b. Will you leave?

In the first example, the speaker utters a sentence with an imperative proposition and with the purpose to make the hearer leave. The speaker uses a performative verb and thus completely avoids any possible misunderstanding. The message is clear here.

The second utterance (b) is rather ambiguous without an appropriate context. It can be understood in two different ways: it can be either taken literally, as a yes/no question, or non-literally as an indirect request or even command to leave. The hearer can become confused and he does not always have to decode the speaker's intention successfully. (b) is an implicit or primary performative. Working on Lyon's assumption, this is non-explicit, in terms of the definition given above, in that there is no expression in the utterance-inscription itself which makes explicit the fact that this is to be taken as a request rather than a yes/no question [9,176].

The explicit and implicit versions are not equivalent. Uttering the explicit performative version of a command has much more serious impact than uttering the implicit version [22,52]. Thomas adds to this that people therefore often avoid using an explicit performative since in many circumstances it seems to imply an unequal power relationship or particular set of rights on the part of the speaker. This can be seen in the following examples:

a. Speak. Who began this? On thy love, I charge thee. [17,125]

b. I dub thee knight.

In (a) Othello speaks to his ensign Iago and asks him who initiated a recent fight. Othello addresses Iago from the position of strength and power and he therefore uses the explicit performative `I charge thee'. Iago understands what is being communicated and carefully explains that he does not know who had started it. In (b) the situation is different. In this example it is rather the particular set of rights on the part of the speaker which enable him to use an explicit performative.

Dubbing was the ceremony whereby the candidate's initiation into knighthood was completed. It could only be carried out by the king or any entitled seigneur who shall strike the candidate three times with the flax of the blade, first upon the left shoulder, next upon the right shoulder and finally upon the top of the head while saying I dub thee

once. I dub thee twice. I dub thee Knight.

The ceremony was completed when the knight received spurs and a belt as tokens of chivalry. Levinson [8,230] declares that `performative sentences achieve their corresponding actions because there are specific conventions linking the words to institutional procedures'. The institutional procedures are not always the same, they differ considerably in different historical periods and cultures (e. g. the institution of marriage in western and eastern societies). Austin states that it is also necessary for the procedure and the performative to be executed in appropriate circumstances in order to be successful.

Shiffrin [12,51], commenting on Austin's observations, adds: "The

circumstances allowing an act are varied: they include the existence of `an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect', the presence of `particular persons and circumstances', `the correct and complete execution of a procedure', and (when appropriate to the act) `certain thoughts, feelings, or intentions'. These circumstances are more often called felicity conditions.

1.2 Felicity conditions

The term of felicity conditions was proposed by Austin who defines them as follows [1,14]:

A. There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, that procedure to include the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances.

B. The particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked.

C. The procedure must be executed by all participants both correctly and completely.

D. Where, as often, the procedure is designed for use by persons having certain thoughts or feelings, or for the inauguration of certain consequential conduct on the part of any participant, then a person participating in and so invoking the procedure must intend so to conduct themselves, and further must actually so conduct themselves subsequently.

Linguistic literature concerning the theory of speech acts often deals with Austin's example of marriage in connection with felicity conditions. Thomas for instance closely describes the institution of marriage and states that in western societies this conventional procedure involves a man and a woman, who are not debarred from marrying for any reason, presenting themselves before an authorized person (minister of religion or registrar), in an authorized place (place of worship or registry place), at an approved time (certain days or times are excluded) accompanied by a minimum of two witnesses. They must go through a specified form of marriage: the marriage is not legal unless certain declarations are made and unless certain words have been spoken [20,38]. Only then are all the felicity conditions met and the act is considered valid.

However, this procedure is often not universal; the customs vary throughout countries and cultures. In Islamic world for example, the ceremony of marriage is considerably different. The bride cannot act herself, she needs a wali (male relative) to represent her in concluding the marital contract as without his presence the marriage would be invalid and illegal. The declarations and words spoken are also culture specific and thus different from the formulas common in Europe.

For all that, there must exist a certain conventional procedure with appropriate circumstances and persons involved, it must be executed correctly and completely, the persons must have necessary thoughts, feelings and intentions and if consequent conduct is specified, then the relevant parties must do it. [20,37] Generally, only with these felicity conditions met the act is fully valid.

The term of felicity conditions is still in use and it is not restricted only to performatives anymore. As Yule [22,50] observes, felicity conditions cover expected or appropriate circumstances for the performance of a speech act to be recognized as intended.

1.2.1 Preparatory conditions

Preparatory conditions include the status or authority of the speaker to perform the speech act, the situation of other parties and so on.

In order to confirm a candidate, the speaker must be a bishop; but a mere priest can baptize people, while various ministers of religion and registrars may solemnize marriages (in England). In the case of marrying, there are other conditions - that neither of the couple is already married, that they make their own speech acts, and so on. We sometimes speculate about the status of people (otherwise free to marry) who act out a wedding scene in a play or film - are they somehow, really, married? In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare has no worries, because the words of the ceremony are not spoken on stage, and, anyway, Juliet's part is played by a boy. (Though this may make the wedding scene seem blasphemous to some in the audience.)

In the UK only the monarch can dissolve parliament. A qualified referee can caution a player, if he or she is officiating in a match. The referee's assistant (who, in the higher leagues, is also a qualified referee) cannot do this.

The situation of the utterance is important. If the US President jokingly "declares” war on another country in a private conversation, then the USA is not really at war. This, in fact, happened (on 11 August 1984), when Ronald Reagan made some remarks off-air, as he thought, but which have been recorded for posterity: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes".

1.2.2 Conditions of execution

Conditions for execution can assume an exaggerated importance. We are so used to a ritual or ceremonial action accompanying the speech act that we believe the act is invalidated, if the action is lacking - but there are few real examples of this.

Take refereeing of association football. When a referee cautions a player, he (or she) should take the player's name, number and note the team for which he plays. The referee may also display a yellow card, but this is not necessary to the giving of the caution:

"The mandatory use of the cards is merely a simple aid for better communication.

In knighting their subjects, English monarchs traditionally touch the recipient of the honour on both shoulders with the flat side of a sword blade. But this, too, is not necessary to the performance of the speech act.

A story is told in Oxford of a young man, taking his final exams, who demanded a pint of beer from the invigilators. He pointed out that he was wearing his sword, as required by the mediaeval statute that made provision for the drink. The invigilator (exam supervisor), believing the young man's version of events, brought the beer, but checked the statutes. Later the young man received a fine - he had not, as the statute also required, been wearing his spurs. The story may well be an urban myth (the writer heard it several times from different sources), but illustrates neatly a condition of execution.

1.2.3 Sincerity conditions

At a simple level these show that the speaker must really intend what he or she says. In the case of apologizing or promising, it may be impossible for others to know how sincere the speaker is. Moreover sincerity, as a genuine intention (now) is no assurance that the apologetic attitude will last, or that the promise will be kept. There are some speech acts - such as plighting one's troth or taking an oath - where this sincerity is determined by the presence of witnesses. The one making the promise will not be able later to argue that he or she didn't really mean it.

A more complex example comes in the classroom where the teacher asks a question, but the pupil supposes that the teacher knows the answer and is, therefore, not sincere in asking it. In this case "Can you, please, tell me X? may be more acceptable to the child than "What is X?

We can also use our understanding of sincerity conditions humorously, where we ask others, or promise ourselves, to do things which we think the others know to be impossible: "Please can you make it sunny tomorrow?

Chapter ii. types of the speech acts

The locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts are, in fact, three basic components with the help of which a speech act is formed. Leech [7,99] briefly defines them like this:

locutionary act: performing an act of saying something

illocutionary act: performing an act in saying something

perlocutionary act: performing an act by saying something.

The locutionary act can be viewed as a mere uttering of some words in certain language, while the illocutionary and perlocutionary acts convey a more complicated message for the hearer. An illocutionary act communicates the speaker's intentions behind the locution and a perlocutionary act reveals the effect the speaker wants to exercise over the hearer. This can be demonstrated on a simple example: Would you close the door, please?

The surface form, and also the locutionary act, of this utterance is a question with a clear content (Close the door.) The illocutionary act conveys a request from the part of the speaker and the perlocutionary act expresses the speaker's desire that the hearer should go and close the door. But the individual elements cannot be always separated that easily.

2.1 The Locutionary act

This component of the speech act is probably the least ambiguous. Bach and Harnish [4, 19], commenting on Austin's work, point out that Austin distinguishes three aspects of the locutionary act. Austin claims that to say anything is:

A. always to perform the act of uttering certain noises (a phonetic act)

B. always to perform the act of uttering certain vocables or words (a phaticact)

C. generally to perform the act of using that [sentence] or its constituents with a certain more or less definite `sense' and a more or less definite `reference', which together are equivalent to `meaning' (rhetic act). From this division it follows that the locutionary act comprises other three "subacts”: phonetic, phatic and rhetic. This distinction as well as the notion of locutionary act in general was often criticized by Austin's followers.

Searle even completely rejects Austin's division and proposes his own instead [16,405]. Searle warns that Austin's rhetic act is nothing else but a reformulated description of the illocutionary act and he therefore suggests another term, the so-called propositional act which expresses the proposition (a neutral phrase without illocutionary force). In other words, a proposition is the content of the utterance [16,412]. Wardhaugh offers this explanation. Propositional acts are those matters having to do with referring and predicating: we use language to refer to matters in the world and to make predictions about such matters [21,285]. Propositional acts cannot occur alone since the speech act would not be complete. The proposition is thus expressed in the performance of an illocutionary act.

What is essential to note here is that not all illocutionary acts must necessarily have a proposition (utterances expressing states such as `Ouch! ' or `Damn! ' are "propositionless" as Searle observes [13,30]. Having defined the proposition and propositional acts, Searle modifies Austin's ideas and states that there are utterance acts (utterance acts are similar to 13Austin's phonetic and phatic "sub-acts”, Searle [13,24] defines them as mere uttering morphemes, words and sentences), propositional acts and illocutionary acts. Utterance acts together with propositional acts are an inherent part of the theory of speech acts but what linguists concentrate on the most is undoubtedly the issue of illocutionary acts.

2.2 The Illocutionary act

Illocutionary acts are considered the core of the theory of speech acts. As already suggested above, an illocutionary act is the action performed by the speaker in producing a given utterance. The illocutionary act is closely connected with speaker's intentions, e. g. stating, questioning, promising, requesting, giving commands, threatening and many others. As Yule [22,48] claims, the illocutionary act is thus performed via the communicative force of an utterance which is also generally known as illocutionary force of the utterance. Basically, the illocutionary act indicates how the whole utterance is to be taken in the conversation.

Sometimes it is not easy to determine what kind of illocutionary act the speaker performs. To hint his intentions and to show how the proposition should be taken the speaker uses many indications, ranging from the most obvious ones, such as unambiguous performative verbs, to the more opaque ones, among which mainly various paralinguistic features (stress, timbre and intonation) and word order should be mentioned.

In order to correctly decode the illocutionary act performed by the speaker, it is also necessary for the hearer to be acquainted with the context the speech act occurs in.

Mey [10,139] says that one should not believe a speech act to be taking place, before one has considered, or possibly created, the appropriate context. Another important thing, which should not be forgotten while encoding or decoding speech acts, is that certain speech acts can be culture-specific and that is why they cannot be employed universally. Mey shows this on French and American conventions. He uses a French sentence to demonstrate the cultural differences.

Mais vous ne comperenez pas! (literally, `But you don't understand! ')

While a Frenchman considers this sentence fully acceptable, an American could be offended if addressed in similar way as he could take it as a taunt aimed at the level of his comprehension or intelligence [10,133]. The interpretation of speech acts differs throughout the cultures and the illocutionary act performed by the speaker can be easily misinterpreted by a member of different cultural background.

From this it also follows that `the illocutionary speech act is communicatively successful only if the speaker's illocutionary intention is recognized by the hearer. These intentions are essentially communicative because the fulfillment of illocutionary intentions consists in hearer's understanding. Not only are such intentions reflexive. Their fulfillment consists in their recognition [4,15].

Nevertheless, as already pointed out in the previous example, there are cases when the hearer fails to recognize the speaker's intentions and he therefore wrongly interprets the speaker's utterance. This misunderstanding may lead to funny situations and hence it is often an unfailing source for various jokes.

The door is there.

This simple declarative sentence in the form of statement can be interpreted in at least two ways. It can be either understood literally as a reply to the question `Where is the way out? ' or possibly `Where is the door? ' or it can be taken as an indirect request to ask somebody to leave. The sentence has thus two illocutionary forces which, even if they are different, have a common proposition (content). The former case is called a direct speech act, the latter an indirect speech act. It depends on the speaker and on the contextual situation which one he will choose to convey in his speech.

Similarly, one illocutionary act can have more utterance acts (or locutionary acts according to Austin) as in:

a. Can you close the door?

b. Will you close the door?

c. Could you close the door?

d. Would you close the door?

e. Can't you close the door?

f. Won't you close the door? [6,262]

All the utterances in the example are indirect requests, they all have a common illocutionary force, that of requesting.

There are hundreds or thousands of illocutionary acts and that is why, for better understanding and orientation, some linguists proposed their classification. The classification which is the most cited in the linguistic literature is that of Searle who divides illocutionary (speech) acts into five major categories (to define them, I will use Levinson's explanations [8,130]:

Representatives are such utterances which commit the hearer to the truth of the expressed proposition (e. g. asserting, concluding) The name of the British queen is Elizabeth.

Directives are attempts by the speaker to get the addressee to do something (e. g. ordering, requesting) Would you make me a cup of tea?

Commissives commit the speaker to some future course of action (e. g. promising, offering) I promise to come at eight and cook a nice dinner for you.

Expressives express a psychological state (e. g. thanking, congratulating) Thank you for your kind offer.

Declarations effect immediate changes in the institutional state of affairs and which tend to rely on elaborate extra-linguistic institutions (e. g. christening, declaring war) I bequeath all my property to my beloved fiancee.

2.3 The Perlocutionary act

Perlocutionary acts, Austin's last element in the three-fold definition of speech acts, are performed with the intention of producing a further effect on the hearer. Sometimes it may seem that perlocutionary acts do not differ from illocutionary acts very much, yet there is one important feature which tells them apart. There are two levels of success in performing illocutionary and perlocutionary acts which can be best explained on a simple example.

Would you close the door?

Considered merely as an illocutionary act (a request in this case), the act is successful if the hearer recognizes that he should close the door, but as a perlocutionary act it succeeds only if he actually closes it. There are many utterances with the purpose to effect the hearer in some way or other, some convey the information directly, others are more careful or polite and they use indirectness to transmit the message.


In the CHAPTER I it is stated that Speech act theory is a modern philosophical approach to language which has challenged the long-standing assumption of philosophers that human utterances consist exclusively of true or false statements about the world. Pragmatics encompasses the Speech act theory. We find out that it has next categories of utterances: explicit and implicit performatives. There are the main types of the felicity conditions which are an integral part of the Speech act theory: preparatory conditions, conditions of execution, sincerity conditions.

The CHAPTER II reveals that a single utterance may comprise three distinct kinds of speech act: locutionary act (performing an act of saying something) has the subacts (phonetic, phatic and rhetic), illocutionaryact (performing an act in saying something) has an illocutionary force (an active function such as threatening, affirming, or reassuring), perlocutionary act (performing an act by saying something) has a perlocutionary force (an effect on the listener or the reader).

Austin's theory of speech acts is a radical conventionalist account of speech highlighting the ritual practices to which speaking contributes and revealing the specific acts mentioned above that arise in linguistic exchanges. This way, it reveals the revolutionary fact that speaking does change the course of events.

speech act theory pragmatic


1. Austin, John Langshaw. How to do things with words. London: Oxford University Press, 1962; 179p.

2. Ardissono L., G. Boella and L. Lesmo. "Politeness and Speech Acts”.10 January 2006; 40р.

3. Asher Nicholas, Alex Lascarides. "Indirect Speech Acts. ” 15 December 2005; 30р.

4. Bach Kent, Robert M. Harnish. Linguistic communication and Speech Acts.

Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1979; 306р.

5. Grice Paul: (1989) Studies in the Way of Words, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass; 384р.

6. Hernandez, Lorena Pйrez, Francisco Josй Ruiz de Mendoza. "Grounding, semantic motivation and conceptual interaction in indirect directive speech acts." Journal of Pragmatics 34 (2002): Р.259-284.

7. Leech, Geoffrey. Principles of Pragmatics. New York: Longman Singapore Publishing, 1983; 239р.

8. Levinson, Stephen C. Pragmatics. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1983; 423р.

9. Lyons, John. Language and meaning. London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1981; 331р.

10. Mey, Jacob L. Pragmatics: an introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2000; 416р.

11. Reza, Yasmina. Life x 3. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2000; 49р.

12. Schiffrin, Deborah. Approaches to Discourse. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1994; 480р.

13. Searle, John R. Speech Acts. London: Syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1976; 205р.

14. Searle, John R. Expression and meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979; 189р.

15. Searle, John R. "Meaning and Speech Acts. ” The Philosophical Review 71 (1962): 423-432.

16. Searle John R. & Vanderveken Daniel: Foundations of Illocutionary Logic, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Mass; 231р.

17. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 1998; 237р.

18. Talbot, Mary. Language and Gender. An Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998; Р.37

19. Tannen, Deborah. Gender and Discourse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994; 229р.

20. Thomas, Jenny. Meaning in interaction: an Introduction to Pragmatics. London: Longman Group Limited, 1995; 224р.

21. Wardhaugh, Ronald. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.464p.

22. Yule, George. Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.319p.

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