Utterance (Speech)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"[T]here is no hard and fast, agreed definition of an utterance," says Alex Klinge. "Presumably an utterance is any item or items of a language actually used for a communicative purpose in a specific context" (Mastering English, 1998). (Hill Street Studios/Getty Images)

In linguistics, an utterance is a unit of speech.

In phonetic terms, an utterance is a stretch of spoken language that is preceded by silence and followed by silence or a change of speaker. (Phonemes, morphemes, and words are all considered "segments" of the stream of speech sounds that constitute an utterance.)

In orthographic terms, an utterance is a syntactic unit that begins with a capital letter and ends in a period, question mark, or exclamation point.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Middle English, "outward, make known"

Examples and Observations

  • "[T]he word utterance . . . can refer to the product of a verbal act, rather than to the verbal act itself. For instance, the words Would you please be quiet?, spoken with a polite rising intonation, might be described as a sentence, or as a question, or as a request. However, it is convenient to reserve terms like sentence and question for grammatical entities derived from the language system, and to reserve the term utterance for instances of such entities, identified by their use in a particular situation."
    (Geoffrey N. Leech, Principles of Pragmatics, 1983. Routledge, 2014)

  • Utterances and Sentences
    - "We use the term 'utterance' to refer to complete communicative units, which may consist of single words, phrases, clauses and clause combinations spoken in context, in contrast to the term 'sentence,' which we reserve for units consisting of at least one main clause and any accompanying subordinate clauses, and marked by punctuation (capital letters and full stops) in writing."
    (Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy, Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

    - "An utterance can take sentence form, but not every sentence is an utterance. An utterance is identifiable by a pause, a relinquishing of the floor, a change of speaker; that the first speaker stops indicates that the utterance is, temporarily, complete and awaits, invites a response."
    (Barbara Green, "Experiential Learning." Bakhtin and Genre Theory in Biblical Studies, ed. by Roland Boer. Society of Biblical Literature, 2007)
  • "For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
    Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
    To stir men's blood: I only speak right on."
    (Mark Antony in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene 2)
  • Intentionality
    "[T]he problem of meaning can be posed as follows: How does the mind impose Intentionality on entities that are not intrinsically Intentional, on entities such as sounds and marks that are, construed in one way, just physical phenomena in the world like any other? An utterance can have Intentionality, just as a belief has Intentionality, but whereas the Intentionality of the belief is intrinsic the Intentionality of the utterance is derived. The question then is: How does it derive its Intentionality?"
    (John R. Searle, Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge University. Press, 1983)

  • The Lighter Side of Utterances

    Kate Beckett: Um, do you know how you talk in your sleep sometimes?
    Richard Castle: Oh yeah.
    Kate Beckett: Well, last night you said a name.
    Richard Castle: Ooh. And not your name, I assume.
    Kate Beckett: No.
    Richard Castle: Well, I wouldn't read anything into one random utterance.
    Kate Beckett: Fourteen utterances, and the name was Jordan. You said it over and over again. Who's Jordan?
    Richard Castle: I have no idea.
    Kate Beckett: Is it a woman?
    Richard Castle: No! It's nothing.
    Kate Beckett: Castle, I know nothing. Nothing is a dear friend of mine and this is not nothing.
    Richard Castle: Yes, it is. Besides, most of what I say is meaningless. Why would it be any different when I'm asleep?
    (Stana Katic and Nathan Fillon, "The Wild Rover." Castle, 2013)