Speech Act Theory

John R. Searle speaks at Google 7
"Consciousness in Artificial Intelligence" symposium, Mountain View, CA, 11-23-2015.

 FranksValli/Wikimedia Commons

Speech act theory is a subfield of pragmatics that studies how words are used not only to present information but also to carry out actions.

The speech act theory was introduced by Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin in How to Do Things With Words and further developed by American philosopher J.R. Searle. It considers the degree to which utterances are said to perform locutionary acts, illocutionary acts, and/or perlocutionary acts.

Many philosophers and linguists study speech act theory as a way to better understand human communication. "Part of the joy of doing speech act theory, from my strictly first-person point of view, is becoming more and more remindful of how many surprisingly different things we do when we talk to each other," (Kemmerling 2002).

Searle's Five Illocutionary Points

Philosopher J.R. Searle is responsible for devising a system of speech act categorization.

"In the past three decades, speech act theory has become an important branch of the contemporary theory of language thanks mainly to the influence of [J.R.] Searle (1969, 1979) and [H.P.] Grice (1975) whose ideas on meaning and communication have stimulated research in philosophy and in human and cognitive sciences...

From Searle's view, there are only five illocutionary points that speakers can achieve on propositions in an utterance, namely: the assertive, commissive, directive, declaratory and expressive illocutionary points. Speakers achieve the assertive point when they represent how things are in the world, the commissive point when they commit themselves to doing something, the directive point when they make an attempt to get hearers to do something, the declaratory point when they do things in the world at the moment of the utterance solely by virtue of saying that they do and the expressive point when they express their attitudes about objects and facts of the world (Vanderkeven and Kubo 2002).

Speech Act Theory and Literary Criticism

"Since 1970 speech act theory has influenced...the practice of literary criticism. When applied to the analysis of direct discourse by a character within a literary work, it provides a systematic...framework for identifying the unspoken presuppositions, implications, and effects of speech acts [that] competent readers and critics have always taken into account, subtly though unsystematically.

Speech act theory has also been used in a more radical way, however, as a model on which to recast the theory of literature...and especially...prose narratives. What the author of a fictional work—or else what the author's invented narrator—narrates is held to constitute a 'pretended' set of assertions, which are intended by the author, and understood by the competent reader, to be free from a speaker's ordinary commitment to the truth of what he or she asserts.

Within the frame of the fictional world that the narrative thus sets up, however, the utterances of the fictional characters—whether these are assertions or promises or marital vows—are held to be responsible to ordinary illocutionary commitments," (Abrams and Galt Harpham 2005).

Criticisms of Speech Act Theory

Although Searle's theory of speech acts has had a tremendous influence on functional aspects of pragmatics, it has also received very strong criticism.

The Function of Sentences

Some argue that Austin and Searle based their work principally on their intuitions, focusing exclusively on sentences isolated from the context where they might be used. In this sense, one of the main contradictions to Searle's suggested typology is the fact that the illocutionary force of a concrete speech act cannot take the form of a sentence as Searle considered it.

"Rather, researchers suggest that a sentence is a grammatical unit within the formal system of language, whereas the speech act involves a communicative function separate from this."

Interactional Aspects of Conversation

"In speech act theory, the hearer is seen as playing a passive role. The illocutionary force of a particular utterance is determined with regard to the linguistic form of the utterance and also introspection as to whether the necessary felicity conditions—not least in relation to the speaker's beliefs and feelings—are fulfilled. Interactional aspects are, thus, neglected.

However, [a] conversation is not just a mere chain of independent illocutionary forces—rather, speech acts are related to other speech acts with a wider discourse context. Speech act theory, in that it does not consider the function played by utterances in driving conversation is, therefore, insufficient in accounting for what actually happens in conversation," (Barron 2003).


  • Abrams, Meyer Howard, and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 8th ed., Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2005.
  • Austin, J.l. “How To Do Things With Words.” 1975.
  • Barron, Anne. Acquisition in Interlanguage Pragmatics Learning How to Do Things with Words in a Study Abroad Context. J. Benjamins Pub. Co., 2003..
  • Kemmerling, Andreas. “Speech Acts, Minds, and Social Reality: Discussions with John r. Searle. Expressing an Intentional State.” Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy, vol. 79, 2002, pp. 83. Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Vanderveken, Daniel, and Susumu Kubo. “Introduction.” Essays in Speech Act Theory, John Benjamins, 2001, pp. 1–21.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Speech Act Theory." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/speech-act-theory-1691986. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). Speech Act Theory. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/speech-act-theory-1691986 Nordquist, Richard. "Speech Act Theory." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/speech-act-theory-1691986 (accessed June 5, 2023).