Performative Verbs

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

woman being sworn in before testifying in 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. Fuse/Getty Images

In English grammar and speech-act theory, a performative verb is a verb that explicitly conveys the kind of speech act being performed—such as promise, invite, apologize, predict, vow, request, warn, insist, and forbid. Also known as speech-act verb or performative utterance

The concept of performative verbs was introduced by Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin in How to Do Things With Words (1962) and further developed by American philosopher J.R. Searle, among others. Austin estimated that "a good dictionary" contains upwards of 10,000 performative or speech-act verbs.

Examples and Observations

  • "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)."
    -Kirsten Malmkjaer, "Speech-Act Theory." The Linguistics Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2004
  • "As your lawyer, your brother, and your friend, I highly recommend that you get a better lawyer."
    -David Patrick Kelly as Jerry Horne in Twin Peaks, 1990
  • "The faculty at Ohio's Bowling Green State University vetoed a professor's planned course on political correctness. Kathleen Dixon, director of women's studies at the university, explained: 'We forbid any course that says we restrict free speech.'"
    -George Will, Newsweek. December 25, 2000
  • "'I declare,' he said, 'with the mamma I got it's a wonder I turned out to be such a nice boy!'"
    -Flannery O'Connor, "Greenleaf." The Kenyon Review, 1957
  • "As your president, I would demand a science-fiction library, featuring an ABC of the genre. Asimov, Bester, Clarke."
    -Martin Prince in "Lisa's Substitute." The Simpsons, 1991
  • Apologizing
    "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."
    -R. Dirven and M. Verspoor, Cognitive Exploration of Language and Linguistics. John Benjamins, 2004
  • Hedged Performatives
    "Generally, the performative 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."
    -S. Greenbaum, The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 1992