Felicity Conditions: Definition and Examples

Propositional, Preparatory, Essential, and Sincerity

felicity conditions
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In pragmatics (the study of how to do things with words) and speech-act theory, the term felicity conditions refers to the conditions that must be in place and the criteria that must be satisfied for a speech act to achieve its purpose. "In other words," says Mark Liberman, an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, "a sentence must not only be grammatical to be correctly performed, it must also be felicitous," or well-suited for the purpose.

English Language and Linguistics Online (ELLO) gives the example of a marriage scene in a movie:

"Have you ever asked yourself why the words 'I now pronounce you husband and wife' do not create a legal marriage between two people when uttered in the context of a film set?"

Of course, the actors in the scene are not really legally married, even if they both say "I do," before the thespian justice of the peace or clergyperson recites these words. The conditions are not in place and the criteria are not satisfied for this speech act to achieve its purpose—namely that the "bride" and "groom" enter into a marriage that is legally binding. And the person officiating has no legal authority to pronounce the two husband and wife. Thus, the speech act in the movie marriage scene is not felicitous.

Types of Felicity Conditions

There are several types of felicitous conditions, notes ELLO, including the following:

  • Propositional content, which requires participants to understand language, not to act like actors
  • Preparatory, where the authority of the speaker and the circumstances of the speech act are appropriate to its being performed successfully
  • Sincerity, where the speech act is being performed seriously and sincerely
  • Essential, where the  speaker intends that an utterance be acted upon by the addressee

For example, Patrick Colm Hogan, in "Philosophical Approaches to the Study of Literature," describes felicity conditions with this example:

"Suppose I am in a play and deliver the line 'I promise to kill the evil Don Fernando.' I have not, in fact, promised to kill anyone. ... The speech act fails because, among other things, I must have a certain institutional authority for my words to have the appropriate illocutionary force. ... [The] speech act [also] fails because the words are uttered in a context where they are not used by the speaker, but in effect quoted from a text."

In this example, Hogan's speech is infelicitous because he does not meet the propositional content condition: He is actually acting. He also does not meet the preparatory condition because he certainly does not have the authority to kill anyone. He doesn't meet the sincerity condition because he doesn't actually intend to kill anyone—as noted, he is only acting. And he doesn't meet the essential condition because he's not expecting that his words will be acted upon; in other words, he doesn't actually intend for someone else to kill Fernando.

Other Examples and Observations

Performatives are utterances in which saying is doing, and they are only successful if certain felicity conditions are fulfilled, says author Guy Cook in his book "Discourse (Language Teaching: A Scheme for Teacher Education)." For a speech act to be felicitous, says Cook:

  1. The sender believes the action should be done.
  2. The receiver has the ability to do the action.
  3. The receiver has the obligation to do the action.
  4. The sender has the right to tell the receiver to do the action.

If any one of these conditions is not fulfilled, the utterances are not felicitous. The reason is that felicity conditions are conventions that speakers and addressees use as a code to produce and recognize actions, says psychology professor William Turnbull in "Language in Action: Psychological Models of Conversation."

In other words, says Turnbull, for felicity conditions to exist, the speaker must utter words that are heard by receivers. The receiver then should take some kind of action based on those words. If the speaker is unintelligible, lacks the authority or status to speak those words, or is insincere, then her utterances are infelicitous. If the listener doesn't act on those words, then the speech is infelicitous. Only if all of these conditions are met are the utterances from the speaker considered felicitous.