Speech act was pointed out by the British philosopher Austin in 1962. He thought that sentences are not always uttered just to say things, but rather, they are used to do things. Based on this assumption, Austin advanced the Speech Act Theory, which is now generally viewed as one of the basic theories of pragmatics.20060215145727867.jpg

In traditional semantics, a statement functions either as a description of something or as a statement of a fact. The description or statement is either true or false. Philosophers have long been concerned merely with the verifiability of the statement and the conditions which a true statement must meet. Austin (1962) challenged this long-conceived belief, pointing out that in real communication, not all naturally occurring declarative sentences are used to make true or false statements. Instead, they fall into two categories: constative utterances and performative utteranve.

E. g.

Constative utterance:

(a) The United States is located in the Western Hemisphere.

(b) The king of France is bald.

Performative utterance:

(a)I bet you six pence it will rain tomorrow.

(b)I name this carrier Ronald Reagan.

Definition of Speech Act

An action performed by the use of an utterance to communicate is called a speech act. When a direct relationship exists between the structure and communicative function of an utterance, the speech act is referred to as direct speech act. In contrast, indirect speech act refers to one in which an indirect relationship exists between the structure and the communicative function of an utterance.


When a speaker utters the declarative “It’s cold in here.” to make a statement (i.e. describing the temperature in the place where the sentence is uttered), it is a direct speech act.

However, in some situations, the speaker may as well use this declarative to make a request (e.g. requesting the addressee to close the window). Then we say it is an indirect speech act.

Classification of Utterances

When a sentence is uttered, the speaker is performing three kinds of speech acts simultaneously: locutionary act, illocutionary act, and perlocutionary act.

(1) Locutionary act: referring to the utterance of a sentence with determinate sense and reference.

(2) Illocutionary act: referring to the making of a statement, offer, promise, etc. in uttering a sentence, by virtue of the conventional force associated with it(or with its explicit performative paraphrase).

(3) Perlocutionary act: referring to the bringing about of effects on the audience by means of uttering the sentence, such effects being special to the circumstances of the utterance.


When uttering the imperative “Turn left”

l The speaker performs the locutionary act of asking the addressee to perform the intended action (i.e. turning left).

l When this imperative is uttered in appropriate circumstances, it has the illocutionary force of ordering, urging, or advising the addressee to turn left.

l When the illocutionary force is perceived, understood and acted upon by the addressee, then the perlocutionary effect is brought about.

Classification of Performative Speech Act

In order to perform a certain performative speech act, particular conditions should be met. These conditions are classified by some pragmaticians into the following four kinds:

(1) Essential conditions

Some performative speech acts should meet certain essential conditions to bring about their illocutionary force. This is particularly true for the conventional illocutionary acts.

(2) Propositional conditions

In order to have a certain illocutionary force, the propositional content of an utterance should meet the conditions to perform this kind of speech act.

(3) Preparatory conditions

In order to perform fully an illocutionary act, a set of presumptions are essential.

(4) Sincerity conditions

When the speaker performs an illocutionary act in an utterance expressing a certain propositional content, he or she also expresses a certain mental state. When the speaker makes a statement, he or she also expresses the mental state of “belief”. When the speaker makes a promise, his or her mental state is “intention”. When the speaker utters a command, his or her mental state is “desire”.