Performative Verbs

A Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A woman being sworn in at court
A witness in an American court is asked, "Do you solemnly swear that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?" In this context, the word swear functions as a performative verb.

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In English grammar and speech-act theory, a performative verb is a verb that explicitly conveys the type of speech act being performed. A speech act is an expression of intent—therefore, a performative verb, also called a speech-act verb or performative utterance, is an action that conveys intent. A speech act can be in the form of a promise, invitation, apology, prediction, vow, request, warning, insistence, forbiddance, and more. Verbs accomplishing any of these are performative verbs.

The concept of performative verbs was introduced by Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin in How to Do Things With Words and further developed by American philosopher J.R. Searle and others like him. Austin estimated that "a good dictionary" contains upwards of 10,000 speech-act verbs (Austin 2009).

The Linguistics Encyclopedia defines performative verbs as follows: "Performative verbs name actions that are performed, wholly or partly, by saying something (state, promise); non-performative verbs name other types of actions, types of action which are independent of speech (walk, sleep)," (Malmkjaer 2002).

Examples and Observations

See the following examples of performative verbs in various contexts from literature and media. Performative verbs are italicized.

  • "As your lawyer, your brother, and your friend, I highly recommend that you get a better lawyer," ("Drive With a Dead Girl").
  • [In response to a vetoed planned course on the origin of political correctness] "We forbid any course that says we restrict free speech," (Dixon 1990).
  • "'I declare,' he said, 'with the mamma I got it's a wonder I turned out to be such a nice boy!'"(O'Connor 1965).
  • "As your president, I would demand a science-fiction library, featuring an ABC of the genre. Asimov, Bester, Clarke."
    ("Lisa's Substitute).

Apologies

Performative verbs used in apologies are unique because a person's intent when apologizing is dependent on their level of authenticity. The book Cognitive Exploration of Language and Linguistics attempts to define this: "By saying we apologize we perform an expressive act simultaneously with the naming of that expressive act. It is for this reason that "apologize" is called a performative verb, defined as a verb denoting linguistic action that can both describe a speech act and express it.

This explains why we can say that we are sorry, but not that we are sorry on someone else's behalf because "be sorry" only expresses, but does not describe, the act of making an apology," (Dirven et al. 2009).

Hedged Performatives

Hedged performatives can be used to express speech-acts with more diluted force. This type of performative features speech-act verbs used directly with supporting modifiers to achieve indirect illocutionary force. Sidney Greenbaum, author of The Oxford English Dictionary, comments on the form and function of hedged performatives below.

"Generally, the performative verb ... is in the simple present active and the subject is I, but the verb may be in the simple present passive and the subject need not be I: Smoking is forbidden; The committee thanks you for your services. A test for whether a verb is being used performatively is the possible insertion of hereby: I hereby apologize; The committee hereby thanks you.

In hedged performatives, the verb is present but the speech act is performed indirectly: In saying I must apologize for my behavior, the speaker is expressing an obligation to make an apology, but implies that the acknowledgment of that obligation is the same as an apology. In contrast, I apologized is a report, and Must I apologize? is a request for advice," (Greenbaum 1996).

Sources

  • Austin, John L. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford Univ. Press, 2009.
  • Dirven René de, et al. Cognitive Exploration of Language and Linguistics. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2009.
  • Dixon, Kathleen. Press Release. Bowling Green State University Course Rejection. 1990, Bowling Green.
  • “Drive with a Dead Girl.” Deschanel, ‎Caleb, director. Twin Peaks, season 2, episode 8, ABC, 17 Nov. 1990.
  • “Lisa's Substitute.” Moore, Rich, director. The Simpsons, season 2, episode 19, Fox, 25 Apr. 1991.
  • O'Connor, Flannery. Everything That Rises Must Converge - Greenleaf. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965.
  • Sidney, Greenbaum. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • “The Routledge Linguistics Encyclopedia.” The Routledge Linguistics Encyclopedia, Edited by Kirsten Malmkjaer, 2nd ed., Taylor and Francis Group, 2002.