Illocutionary Force in Speech Theory

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In speech-act theory, illocutionary force refers to a speaker's intention in delivering an utterance or to the kind of illocutionary act the speaker is performing. Also known as an illocutionary function or illocutionary point.

In Syntax: Structure, Meaning, and Function (1997), Van Vallin and LaPolla state that illocutionary force "refers to whether an utterance is an assertion, a question, a command or an expression of a wish. These are different types of illocutionary force, which means that we can talk about interrogative illocutionary force, imperative illocutionary force, optative illocutionary force, and declarative illocutionary force."

The terms illocutionary act and illocutionary force were introduced by British linguistic philosopher John L. Austin in How to Do Things With Words (1962).

Examples and Observations

Illocutionary Act and Illocutionary Force

"[A]n illocutionary act refers to the type of function a speaker intends to accomplish in the course of producing an utterance. It is an act accomplished in speaking and defined within a system of social conventions. Thus, if John says to Mary Pass me the glasses, please, he performs the illocutionary act of requesting or ordering Mary to hand the glasses over to him. The functions or actions just mentioned are also referred to as the illocutionary force or illocutionary point of the speech act. The illocutionary force of a speech act is the effect a speech act is intended to have by a speaker. Indeed, the term 'speech act' in its narrow sense is often taken to refer specifically to illocutionary act."
(Yan Huang, The Oxford Dictionary of Pragmatics. Oxford University Press, 2012)

Illocutionary Force Indicating Devices

"There are different devices used to indicate how an illocutionary force must be interpreted. For example, 'Open the door' and 'Could you open the door' have the same propositional content (open the door), but they represent different illocutionary acts—an order and a request respectively. These devices that aid the hearer in identifying the illocutionary force of the utterance are referred to as the illocutionary force indicating devices or IFIDs [also called illocutionary force markers]. Performative verbs, mood, word order, intonation, stress are examples of IFIDs."
(Elizabeth Flores Salgado, The Pragmatics of Requests and Apologies. John Benjamins, 2011)

"I may indicate the kind of illocutionary act I am performing by beginning the sentence with 'I apologize,' 'I warn,' 'I state,' etc. Often, in actual speech situations, the context will make it clear what the illocutionary force of the utterance is, without its being necessary to invoke the appropriate explicit illocutionary force indicator."
(John R. Searle, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge University Press, 1969)

"I Was Just Saying That"

  • Kenneth Parcell: I'm sorry, Mr. Jordan. I'm just overworked. With my page duties and being Mr. Donaghy's assistant, there's not enough hours in the day.
  • Tracy Jordan: I'm sorry about that. But just let me know if there's any way I can help.
  • Kenneth: Actually, there is one thing...
  • Tracy: No! I was just saying that! Why can't you read human facial cues

(Jack McBrayer and Tracy Morgan, "Cutbacks." 30 Rock, April 9, 2009)

Pragmatic Competence

"Achieving pragmatic competence involves the ability to understand the illocutionary force of an utterance, that is, what a speaker intends by making it. This is particularly important in cross-cultural encounters since the same form (e.g. 'When are you leaving?') can vary in its illocutionary force depending on the context in which it is made (e.g. 'May I have a ride with you?' or 'Don't you think it is time for you to go?')."
(Sandra Lee McKay, Teaching English as an International Language. Oxford University Press, 2002)

What I Really Mean

"When I say 'how are you' to a co-worker, I really mean hello. Although I know what I mean by 'how are you,' it is possible that the receiver does not know that I mean hello and actually proceeds to give me a fifteen-minute discourse on his various maladies."
(George Ritzer, Sociology: A Multiple Paradigm Science. Allyn & Bacon, 1980)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Illocutionary Force in Speech Theory." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Illocutionary Force in Speech Theory. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Illocutionary Force in Speech Theory." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).