Learn What Speech Acts Are in Linguistics

A political speech can fall under several categories of speech acts
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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 actions which the speaker hopes to provoke in their 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, illocutionary acts, and perlocutionary acts. Illocutionary speech acts can also be broken down into different families, grouped together by their intent of usage.

Locutionary, Illocutionary, and Perlocutionary Acts

In order to determine which way a speech act is to be interpreted, one must first determine the type of act being performed. Austin categories all speech acts as belonging to one of three categories: locutionary, illocutionary, or perlocutionary acts.

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." However, these are the least effective means of describing the acts, merely an umbrella term for illocutionary and perlocutionary acts, which can occur simultaneously.

Illocutionary acts, then, carry a directive for the audience. It might be a promise, an order, an apology, or an expression of thanks. 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 if something is not done. Unlike illocutionary acts, perlocutionary acts 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 exemplifies power or influence.
  • Commissives, which consists of promising or committing to doing something.
  • Behavitives, 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 says that "several categories of speech acts have been proposed" 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 on in "Speech-Act Theory," that "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 JL. 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 S, Seay G. Philosophy of Language: The Central Topics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; 2008.