Speech Acts in Linguistics

Barack Obama giving a speech on the campaign trail

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In linguistics, a speech act is an utterance defined in terms of a speaker's intention and the effect it has on a listener. Essentially, it is the action that the speaker hopes to provoke in his or her audience. Speech acts might be requests, warnings, promises, apologies, greetings, or any number of declarations. As you might imagine, speech acts are an important part of communication.

Speech-Act Theory

Speech-act theory is a subfield of pragmatics. This area of study is concerned with the ways in which words can be used not only to present information but also to carry out actions. It is used in linguistics, philosophy, psychology, legal and literary theories, and even the development of artificial intelligence.

Speech-act theory was introduced in 1975 by Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin in "How to Do Things With Words" and further developed by American philosopher J.R. Searle. It considers three levels or components of utterances: locutionary acts (the making of a meaningful statement, saying something that a hearer understands), illocutionary acts (saying something with a purpose, such as to inform), and perlocutionary acts (saying something that causes someone to act). Illocutionary speech acts can also be broken down into different families, grouped together by their intent of usage.

Locutionary, Illocutionary, and Perlocutionary Acts

To determine which way a speech act is to be interpreted, one must first determine the type of act being performed. Locutionary acts are, according to Susana Nuccetelli and Gary Seay's "Philosophy of Language: The Central Topics," "the mere act of producing some linguistic sounds or marks with a certain meaning and reference." So this is merely an umbrella term, as illocutionary and perlocutionary acts can occur simultaneously when locution of a statement happens.

Illocutionary acts, then, carry a directive for the audience. It might be a promise, an order, an apology, or an expression of thanks—or merely an answer to a question, to inform the other person in the conversation. These express a certain attitude and carry with their statements a certain illocutionary force, which can be broken into families. 

Perlocutionary acts, on the other hand, bring about a consequence to the audience. They have an effect on the hearer, in feelings, thoughts, or actions, for example, changing someone's mind. Unlike illocutionary acts, perlocutionary acts can project a sense of fear into the audience.

Take for instance the perlocutionary act of saying, "I will not be your friend." Here, the impending loss of friendship is an illocutionary act, while the effect of frightening the friend into compliance is a perlocutionary act.

Families of Speech Acts

As mentioned, illocutionary acts can be categorized into common families of speech acts. These define the supposed intent of the speaker. Austin again uses "How to Do Things With Words" to argue his case for the five most common classes: 

  • Verdictives, which present a finding
  • Exercitives, which exemplify power or influence
  • Commissives, which consist of promising or committing to doing something
  • Behabitives, which have to do with social behaviors and attitudes like apologizing and congratulating
  • Expositives, which explain how our language interacts with itself

David Crystal, too, argues for these categories in "Dictionary of Linguistics." He lists several proposed categories, including "directives (speakers try to get their listeners to do something, e.g. begging, commanding, requesting), commissives (speakers commit themselves to a future course of action, e.g. promising, guaranteeing), expressives (speakers express their feelings, e.g. apologizing, welcoming, sympathizing), declarations (the speaker's utterance brings about a new external situation, e.g. christening, marrying, resigning)."

It is important to note that these are not the only categories of speech acts, and they are not perfect nor exclusive. Kirsten Malmkjaer points out in "Speech-Act Theory," "There are many marginal cases, and many instances of overlap, and a very large body of research exists as a result of people's efforts to arrive at more precise classifications."

Still, these five commonly accepted categories do a good job of describing the breadth of human expression, at least when it comes to illocutionary acts in speech theory.


Austin, J.L. "How to Do Things With Words." 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Crystal, D. "Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics." 6th ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Malmkjaer, K. "Speech -Act Theory." In "The Linguistics Encyclopedia," 3rd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2010.

Nuccetelli, Susana (Editor). "Philosophy of Language: The Central Topics." Gary Seay (Series Editor), Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, December 24, 2007.

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Nordquist, Richard. "Speech Acts in Linguistics." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/speech-act-linguistics-1692119. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Speech Acts in Linguistics. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/speech-act-linguistics-1692119 Nordquist, Richard. "Speech Acts in Linguistics." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/speech-act-linguistics-1692119 (accessed June 10, 2023).