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Oxford Philosopher J. Austin

Simply put, speech acts as introduced by Oxford Philosopher J. Austin is concerned about ‘how to do things with words.’ Conversations are not purely about conveying meanings but are sometimes designed to perform something which may be to convince someone of a belief or to get something done. These different actions elicited by these utterances are called speech acts. In order to adequately explain statements fully, it is imperative that we go beyond them and consider the contexts under which they are uttered. This will allow us to differentiate between performative utterances parallel statements. (Austin, 1962)

Language is used for a wide range of activities including conveying information, requesting for information, giving orders, making requests, making threats, making bets, compliments among others.

Only in certain circumstances are questions or requests are considered appropriate. This means that for one to ask a question, he must be sincerely be looking for answer which he doesn’t have already. Such conditions are known as felicity conditions. As such, only a priest can administer a marriage oath to a couple for it to be considered valid. Similarly, only a judge can deliver a court ruling. And it is not just enough that the ruling id delivered by a judge appointed by the state, it must be made within certain precincts, in this case within the court premises. When such conditions are met, the speech act is said to be felicitous. Under certain settings however, one may elicit the answers he already knows e.g. by lawyers questioning their witnesses for the benefit of the court.

Similarly, requests have their own felicity conditions i.e. the speaker must sincerely believe that the action he is asking for has not been done, that he wants the action to be done and that the hearer has the ability as well as the willingness to execute the action. When one therefore requests ‘please add sugar’ in a Starbucks restaurant, he must sincerely believe that there is little or no sugar in his tea, that the hearer is able and willing to add sugar to his tea and that he really needs more sugar in his tea. Such conditions governing speech acts are known as Grice’s Maxims. Utterances therefore have to fulfil these conditions to be considered felicitous. When one does not follow these maxims, he is said to have flouted them e.g. in the case of a person asking for more sugar to be added to his tea when he does not sincerely need more sugar or when the hearer is unable to perform the act. Similarly when a friends utters ‘I hereby name this hotel buddies hotel’ it is not considered felicitous if he does not have the authority to do so.

As per the Grice’s maxim, a statement would be infelicitous if it presupposes the existence of an entity that in fact does not exist. Presupposition then is an important factor when determining whether statements are felicitous or not. A statements such as ‘I will be heading to the River Ganges resort’ is therefore infelicitous is River Ganges resort does not exist. For a presupposition to be satisfied, interlocutors must believe the presupposed information to be true. When a friend this utters ‘Victor is not yet back from the trip’ both friends must necessarily know the presumed information i.e. that victor went for a trip at a certain specific location. (Language files)

The term speech act is used to describe actions such as commanding, requesting, questioning or informing. A speech act then can be defined as an action performed by a speaker with an utterance. A case on point is when one says for example, “I‘ll be there at eight,” he is not just speaking but performing the speech act of ‘promising.’

A speech act is similarly performed in interrogative structures as found in ‘is he..., are they..., can she...’ etc. Here it performs the function of a question. This is usually the case when we ask somebody to provide information on something such as ‘do you know Charles?’ when we for example ask, ‘can you pass the sugar?’ we are not simply asking a question of a person’s ability. In this case the structure is not even to be a question at all, it is instead an indirect speech act.

I think this is very important

And I think it operates

In surprising circumstances

I mean I think it’s true you see

Even in the type of project work

I was talking about earlier on

Where after all the talk is about

Intellectual things

You call what you see a sign?



But I am not talking about signs and symptoms

Then I ll be putting them under the heading symptom


Such as utterances are appropriately regarded as topical actions in everyday conversations. This type is mostly found in the more formal and usually pre-structured conversations as happens in board meetings or academic lectures. The verb ‘talk’ features prominently in the above conversation because after all one usually talks about something. This thread is usually found in lectures such as ‘today we are going to talk about speech acts.’

The semantics of speech acts are not usually based on the individual words but rather on the temporal localization of the speech act in discourse. The identification of such words as speech acts is based on temporal relations and the usual ways in which they are expressed. In the examples above the participants use different tenses, adverbials and aspects. The context is very important in determining the meaning.

If the interlocutor in the above conversation ‘pass the sugar’ for example passes the sugar, the act is said to have a been successful, a fact that confirms the proposition that the hearer can pass the sugar (preparatory conditions of requests) and thus the satisfaction of the request. The force of this request is not in its literal meaning i.e. in requesting for information. This is just a secondary act conveying an illocutionary act. The literal meaning here is therefore a question while the derived meaning is a request. The literal meaning here lies in the propositional content requesting for information i.e. the ability of the hearer to pass the sugar.

Performances of illocutionary acts are not only intended to make a conversationist understand what a speaker is trying to refute of justify but is also meant to convince the listener of the acceptability or otherwise of a particular opinion. Speech acts then have both interactive but also communicative.

Speech acts are performed when we offer greetings, requests, complaints, invitations, compliments or refusals. Speech acts serve a function in communication and may contain just one word such as ‘sorry’ in this case to perform an apology or may contain several words or sentences such as ‘ I am sorry, I forgot to come.’ Real life interactions form an essential component of speech acts as a prerequisite knowledge of how words are used appropriately within a culture.

Greetings: How are things going?

Complaint: I ‘ve been waiting for three weeks now for the car, and I was promised it will be delivered within a week.’

Compliment: Hey, you look beautiful

Refusal: Oh, I ‘d love to come a long, but this Friday isn’t just going to work

Among friends and colleagues who may at the same rank at the workplace, conversations are usually meant to be informative and entertaining. This is also through among teenagers with messages usually containing aspects of humour, quotations or links to different websites. Messages used for informational purposes may involve stating the individual’s location e.g. out when conversing on phone to indicate that one is out of the house. Messages inherently serve a self presentation purpose capable of providing an idea of the speaker’s identity.  Observations indicate that messages are personalized to regulate conversations, express identity and maintain social distance. Searle in his taxonomy categorizes speech acts according to their illocutionary purposes i.e. the acts performed by the utterances. There are five main basic categories i.e. assertive acts as phrases employed to form a certain idea or belief in the addressee e.g. ‘we beat the wolves.’

Assertive statements indicate that something is true. Directive speech acts on the other hand call the addressee to action e.g. ‘call him’ as is used commonly among superiors directing employees say in a restaurant.  Commissive speech acts relate to binding oneself to perform a future action to the addressee e.g. ‘I will be there at one.’ Expressive speech acts on the other hand deal with the states of the mind of the individual speaking e.g. ‘it is a bright day.’ These are not necessarily assertions of facts but emotional reactions to a given situation. (Searle, 1975)

A fifth category known as declaratives require the speaker to be in a position of authority to be effective such as being a minister to baptize a baby.

Speech acts may be categorized as follows

Speech act




Tries to get the interlocutor to form a belief

He is wicked, he is going to proceed with the action


Is used to get the listener to do something

Deliver the goods immediately, pick me up at exactly 6.00 pm


The speaker commits to do something

I ll be coming back before Wednesday, I will see you tonight


Used to express a feeling to the listener

The weather is great today, Fridays are always wonderful

I forgot


To determine a case

I find you guilty

In commissive speech acts, the speaker pledges to undertake a future action or may  simply be used to convey a future plan of action to be completed within a certain time frame e.g. ‘I ll there on Friday.’

Expressive speech acts on the other hand give the states of mind of a certain individual e.g. ‘this is a great day,’ or Fridays are usually great.

To this extent then, commissive speech acts have the primary purpose of providing information and entertainment. These types of statements are quite frequent as people are constantly demanding and giving information.

Directive speech acts are however not common as they do not in any way increase the awareness of the speaker of a certain thing but focuses on the speaker. Declarative speech acts are also rarely observed especially in informal settings. These are usually used in very formal settings e.g. in courts or churches by a limited number of people who have authority.

Assertive, commissive and expressive speech acts are quite common in speech acts as they provide entertainment and information. Declaratives on the other hand are least observed. Speech acts overall are found to be primarily informational and expressive.

Assertive speech acts account for about 70 per cent of all speech acts produced while expressive speech account for about 14 per cent with commissive speech acts accounting for about 12 per cent. It can be observed here that the proportion of assertive speech acts is significantly higher than the rest of the categories. Commissive and expressive speech acts do not significantly differ with one another.

Since conversations are mostly about exchanging information and feelings, it is not surprising to find out that there is very little of directives to be found. These are found in very formal settings such as courts as used by judges and magistrates and churches as used by priests. They focus on the receiver doing something. They are therefore least expected in streets or restaurants.

Expressive speech acts are common among friends and colleagues working together comprising about 14 per cent of the tally. Assertive and commissive statements are based on emotion and it quite normal to find it among people who are close to each other and can share their feelings about something. These do not provide factual or scheduling information but rather they express feelings about certain people or events. Expressions such as ‘thank God, it’s Friday’ give an idea of the emotional state of a person and his personal opinion about something. I this case they may be aroused, happy, sad or angry.

Commissive speech acts largely provide information about one’s activities e.g. ‘I will be back before Wednesday.’ Commissives are not usually associated with humour and is therefore not meant for entertainment. (Bach, 1998)

The relationship between interlocutors in a conversation usually determines the speech acts that are likely to be found in a given conversation. Directives are thus to be found more between superiors and their juniors than among friends or colleagues. Similarly, expressive are more likely to be found among close friends and colleagues as these express the emotions of a speaker at a particular time. Feelings are usually shared between close people. On the other hand, declaratives are to be found in very formal settings are there are certain conditions such must be fulfilled for them to be effective (felicity conditions). These conditions require that one must hold a certain position in the society. For the utterances to be effective, they must also be made within a certain set of conditions e.g. within a court when making rulings regarding the guilt or innocence of a suspect. If this is not done within such premises, the speech act will have failed.

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