Locutionary Act Definition in Speech-Act Theory

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

In speech-act theory, a locutionary act is the act of making a meaningful utterance. Also known as a locution or an utterance act.

The term locutionary act was introduced by British philosopher John L. Austin in How to Do Things With Words (1962). American philosopher John Searle has replaced Austin's concept of the locutionary act with what Searle calls the propositional act—i.e., the act of expressing a proposition.

Examples and Observations:

"The act of 'saying something' in the full normal sense I call, i.e., dub, the performance of a locutionary act, and the study of utterances thus far and in these respects the study of locutions, or of the full units of speech. . . .

"In performing a locutionary act we shall also be performing such an act as:

  • asking or answering a question;
  • giving some information or an assurance or a warning;
  • announcing a verdict or an intention;
  • pronouncing sentence;
  • making an appointment or an appeal or a criticism;
  • making an identification or giving a description;

and the numerous like."(John L. Austin, How to Do Things With Words, 2nd ed. Harvard University Press, 1975)

Three Sub-Acts

"A locutionary act has to do with the simple act of a speaker saying something, i.e. the act of producing a meaningful linguistic expression. It consists of three sub-acts. they are (i) a phonic act of producing an utterance-inscription, (ii) a phatic act of composing a particular linguistic expression in a particular language, and (iii) a rhetic act of contextualizing the utterance-inscription.

The first of these three sub-acts is concerned with the physical act of producing a certain sequence of vocal sounds (in the case of a spoken language), which is also called a phonetic act, or a set of written symbols (in the case of a written language). The second refers to the act of constructing a well-formed string of sounds and/or symbols, be it a word, phrase, sentence, or discourse, in a particular language.

These two sub-acts are grouped by the American philosopher John Searle as performing an utterance act. The third sub-act is responsible for tasks such as assigning reference, resolving deixis, and disambiguating the utterance-inscription. This is referred to as a propositional act by Searle. Thus, if John says to Mary, Pass me the glasses, please, meaning 'Hand the glasses over to me' with me referring to himself and glasses to spectacles, he performs the locutionary act of uttering the sentence Pass me the glasses, please." (Yan Huang, The Oxford Dictionary of Pragmatics. Oxford University Press, 2012)

The Propositional Content of a Locutionary Act

"[A locutionary act] is the act of using a referring expression (e.g., a noun phrase) and a predicating expression (e.g., a verb phrase) to express a proposition. For instance, in the utterance You should stop smoking, the referring expression is you and the predicating expression is stop smoking. . . .

"The propositional content of a locutionary act can be either expressed directly or implied via implicature. . . . For example, a warning such as I warn you to stop smoking constitutes an expressed locutionary act because its propositional content predicates a future act (to stop smoking) of the hearer (you).

"On the other hand, . . . consider the warning I warn you that cigarette smoking is dangerous. This utterance constitutes an implied locutionary act because its propositional content does not predicate a future act of the hearer; instead, it predicates a property of cigarettes." (F. Parker and K. Riley, Linguistics for Non-Linguists. Allyn and Bacon, 1994)