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Speech Act Theory


Explanations > Theories > Speech Act Theory

Description | Research | Example | So what? | See also | References 



Getting a glass of water is an action. Asking someone else to get you one is also an act.

When we speak, our words do not have meaning in and of themselves. They are very much affected by the situation, the speaker and the listener. Thus words alone do not have a simple fixed meaning.

  • Locutionary act: saying something (the locution) with a certain meaning in traditional sense. This may not constitute a speech act.

  • Illocutionary act: the performance of an act in saying something (vs. the general act of saying something).
    The illocutionary force is the speaker's intent. A true 'speech act'.
    e.g. informing, ordering, warning, undertaking.

  •  Perlocutionary acts: Speech acts that have an effect on the feelings, thoughts or actions of either the speaker or the listener. In other words, they seek to change minds!

    Unlike locutionary acts, perlocutionary acts are external to the performance.

    e.g., inspiring, persuading or deterring.

Two types of locutionary act are utterance acts, where something is said (or a sound is made) and which may not have any meaning, and propositional acts, where a particular reference is made. (note: acts are sometimes also called utterances - thus a perlocutionary act is the same a perlocutionary utterance).

Searle (1969) identified five illocutionary/perlocutionary points:

  1. Assertives: statements may be judged true or false because they aim to describe a state of affairs in the world.
  2. Directives: statements attempt to make the other person's actions fit the propositional content.
  3. Commissives: statements which commit the speaker to a course of action as described by the propositional content.
  4. Expressives: statements that express the “sincerity condition of the speech act”.
  5. Declaratives: statements that attempt to change the world by “representing it as having been changed”.

Thus pretty much all we do when we are talking is assert, direct, commiserate, express and declare. In fact we follow two types of rules:

  • Constitutive rules or Definition rules that create or define new forms of behavior.
  • Regulative or Behavior rules that govern types of behavior that already exist.

The meaning of an utterance is thus defined more by convention than the initiative of the reader. When we speak, we are following learned rules.

Performativity occurs where the utterance of a word also enacts it ('I name this ship...'). It is a form of illocutionary act. This has been taken up by such as Judith Butler in feminism and has been used to indicate how pornography is less a form of speech as a performative act of sexual degradation. It is related to suture and interpellation in the way it forces a situation.


Ludwig Wittgenstein called ‘ordinary language philosophy’ the idea that the meaning of language depends on its actual use, rather than having an inherent meaning.

Speech-act theory was originated by Austin (1962) and developed further by Searle (1969).


Oh! - is an utterance (note that communication is not intended - it is just a sound caused by surprise).

The black cat - is a propositional act (something is referenced, but no communication may be intended)

The black cat is stupid - is an assertive illocutionary act (it intends to communicate).

Please find the black cat - is a directive perlocutionary act (it seeks to change behaviour).

So what?

By understanding the detail of what is being said, you can hence understand and communicate better with others.

See also

Judith Butler


Austin (1962), Searle (1969)

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