Speech Act Theory

Speech act theory, this product of ordinary language philosophy in the latter half of the 20th century is based on the assumption that speech is a kind of action. As J. L. Austin, the founder of this approach to language, suggested, we “do things” with words.

Austin suggested that any statement can be examined from three standpoints:

1. as a locution. A locution is the basic meaning of a statement—including that to which the words refer. For example, let us assume that the locution, “It’s raining outside.”

2. an illocution. The particular semantic force of the statement, that which the statement does (e.g. assert a fact, command an action, or make a promise). For example, a descriptive statement about the actual presence of rain currently falling from the sky. According to Searle, there are five kinds of illocutions:
a. assertives (descriptive statements),
b. commissives (e.g. promises),
c. expressives (e.g. exclamations),
d. directives (e.g. commands), and
e. declaratives. Declarative statements are a kind of illocution that bring about a change in the world—creating a new state of afairs—simply by their being spoken or written. According to Alston, this class of speech acts consist of “verbal exercises of authority, verbal ways of altering the ‘social status’ of something, an act that is made possible by one’s social or institutional role or status.” Examples of declarative speech acts include, “I now pronounce you man and wife”; the statement of a college president toward the end of a graduation ceremony that confers upon its graduates their degree; “You’re hired”; “Class dismissed”; and a peace treaty (including the appropriate signatures).

3. a perlocution. A perlocution is the statement considered with respect to the efects or by products (if any) that it has upon its recipients (its readers or hearers). For example, a hearer grabs an umbrella before heading out the door. The speaker’s or author’s desired impact on the hearer/reader is called the “perlocutionary intent” of the speaker/author. Most utterances are illocutions—they have a meaning the speaker or author is intending to convey. However, an utterance is not necessarily a perlocution; it “becomes” a perlocution only if and when the illocution leads to some outcome, whether intended or not.


  • Eric L. Johnson, Rewording The Justification/Sanctification Relation with Some Help From Speech Act Theory. JETS 54.4 (December 2011) 767–55.
  • J. L. Austin, How to Do Things With Words (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962).
  • Mind, Language, and Society: Philosophy in a Real World (New York: Basic, 1998). Searle points out that an illocution can perform more than one of these illocutionary functions (ibid. 150).
  • William P. Alston, Illocutionary Acts and Sentence Meaning (Syracuse, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000) 71.

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