As we have seen in the previous modules, Austin's original idea was that there
is a special kind of utterances called "performatives", and that these utterances do things,
unlike "constative" utterances, which just say things. We have also seen that this idea,
while promising, ultimately falls apart.
Noticing all these problems with the idea of "performatives", Austin came to two new
conclusions. First of all, all utterances do things—doing things is not the sole
domain of special performatives. And secondly, when we utter something, we do multiple
Austin argued that whenever way say something, we do three acts. There
is the act of actually uttering the words, which have certain meanings and which refer to
certain things at certain times. Then there is the act of performing something—we want
our utterance to be understood in a certain way. And, finally, there is the act of [hopefully]
making something happen in the world. Austin calls these locutionary acts,
illocutionary acts, and perlocutionary acts, respectively.
For example, imagine I am a survivor scavenging for food in a zombie apocalypse, and I approach
a house that I think is abandoned. Suddenly, a gun sticks out the window, and I hear someone
shout "If you take one step closer, you'll die!" That person just performed a
locutionary act of saying a sentence which means that if I take one step closer I will die;
an illocutionary act of threatening me; and a perlocutionary act of getting me to
stop approaching their house.
Locutionary acts should sound quite similar to "what is said", a
concept we have discussed in previous modules. A locutionary act is simply the act of
saying something. Austin also breaks this down into further
sub-acts, which are kind of related to distinctions we discussed before between "abstract
meaning" and "utterance meaning", but we don't need to concern ourselves with this detail
Illocutionary acts are what Austin focuses on the most, and they're
the most important topic for us here as well. When we do some locutionary act (i.e., when
we say some utterance with some utterance-meaning), we want people to take it in a certain
way: we want them to understand that it's a warning, or a promise, or an apology, or a
threat, or whatever. Those are the illocutionary acts that we perform: when we say
some utterance, we warn (or threaten, or apologize to, or whatever) someone. This
is a little bit related to the concept of "what is meant", but note that it is much more
restricted: for Austin, illocutionary acts pretty much correspond to several conventional
verbs like these. Furthermore, a listener may still need some extra work to go from "what
is meant" to understanding the illocutionary force. For example, if a person says "It's hot
in here", maybe they really mean that they want the window open. But is that a request
for you to open the window, an order for you to open the window, or something else?
(Or maybe it's not even one of those—maybe they're sweating because they're nervous, but
they don't want you to think they're nervous, so the illocutionary act is informing
you [or, rather, misinforming you] that they're sweating is due to some other reason rather
Perlocutionary acts are what we get other people to do. This
concept is not so important for us; I find that the distinction between locutionary and
illocutionary acts is frequently useful when looking at real-world communication (as we'll
see in the examples below), but I rarely find myself thinking or caring about perlocutionary
acts. But Austin did spend a lot of time discussing these, because in order to clearly
define what an illocutionary act is (remember that these are what Austin cared about the
most, and also what is most relevant to our class), we also have to define what it's not.
And there's an important distinction between what we want to do with an utterance, versus
what its actual effect is. Sometimes these are easy to mix up, but often there are clear
differences (e.g., I argue something [illocutionary act] but fail to
convince anyone [I don't accomplish the perlocutionary act that I wanted]; or I
warn someone but they do not heed my warning). Even though these are situations
where the illocutionary act doesn't produce the desired effects, we can't say that the
illocutionary act didn't happen; i.e., I still did warn, even if no one listened
to my warning.
An easy way to remember these is that the locutionary act is what
you say, the illocutionary act is what you do in saying that stuff (in
+ locution = illocution), and the perlocutionary act is what you accomplish
by doing that stuff (in Latin-derived words, per- means "through",
as in "by means of"). Returning to the above zombie example: someone says the sentence "If you
take one step closer, you'll die!" (a locutionary act), and in saying that sentence
they are giving me a warning (an illocutionary act), and by giving me a warning
they are causing me to stop approaching their house (causing me to stop is a perlocutionary
While Austin talks about all of these in terms of "acts", people often
use closely related terms that refer to the utterance itself. I.e., we will often
talk about an utterance's locutionary content (or propositional content,
or sometimes just
locution), illocutionary force (or sometimes just illocution),
and perlocutionary effect (or sometimes just perlocution). I prefer
these terms, because they have built-in reminders of what they mean! But anyway, saying
a certain utterance has a certain illocutionary force is basically just a shorthand
way of saying that a person making that utterance performed that illocutionary act.
(In other words, "The illocutionary force of X was a warning" is the same as "In
uttering X, he performed the illocutionary act of warning.")
Nowadays people often use the term "speech act" to mean illocutionary
act. I find this confusing, because Austin's whole idea is that speaking involves
multiple acts (at least the illocutionary act and the locutionary act [which itself
can be divided into "phonetic", "phatic", and "rhetic" acts, which I said above we
don't need to get into here]; it's not clear if the perlocutionary act is really
part of the "speech act" or is something else entirely). So I will avoid that
use in this class. But you should be aware of it, because you might encounter it
when you read other things.
What would a pragmatics lesson be without some fun examples? There are many
real-life situations where the concept of illocutionary force comes up, so it's easy to
find examples. Let's look at a few.
A confession from London Overground
First up, take a look at this comedy set by Yuriko Kotani, performed in the
UK. The whole thing is funny and worth watching, but here we're just interested in the bit
about trains that starts about 36 seconds in. (Watch it before you read on, unless you want
me to spoil the good jokes!)
She describes seeing a poster on the train which read, "93.4 percent of
all London Overground trains ran within 5 minutes of their scheduled time between 28th of
June 2015 to 12th July 2015!" Presumably this poster was intended to brag about the
train's good and timely service—and indeed, by UK standards, this record is not bad! But
this record is pretty bad compared to her previous experience living in Japan, where about
100 percent of trains run within about 0 minutes of their scheduled time. So she asked,
"Is this a confession? Are you apologizing?" Here she is joking about
the illocutionary force of the poster—while the intended illocutionary force was to
brag about something the London Overground is doing well, to her it looked more like the
illocutionary force was to make a confession or apology about something the London Overground was
When aliens attack
Moving on. One of the most classic examples in pragmatics is the question
"Can you pass the salt?", which is usually interpreted not as
a question but as a request for the listener to pass the salt to the speaker. But
there are examples that illustrate the same thing and are more fun. Consider a scene
from the 1996 American classic Independence Day, in which the US president is
being telepathically attacked by an alien (who is separated from the other people in
this scene by a glass barrier):
The general asks "Is that glass bulletproof?", and the security
guy easily interprets this as an order (or at least a suggestion) to shoot the
alien—note that, after he says "No, sir", he doesn't need to wait for the general
to say "Well then shoot the alien already!"; he just goes ahead and shoots the alien
without being told. In fact it would have been obnoxious and stupid for him to wait for
a direct order, just like if you said "Can you pass the salt?" it would be obnoxious
and stupid for me to say "Yes, I can" and then wait for you to follow up with, "Then
pass it already!"
Does "no" mean "no"?
The below scene from the show Better Call Saul takes place
some time after Chuck, an accomplished lawyer, has developed a psychological condition
which makes him unable to tolerate being near electricity. He is deeply ashamed of
this condition and goes to great lengths to hide it. So when his ex-wife Rebecca, whom
he still loves, meets him for dinner, he works together with his brother Jimmy to
make up an elaborate scenario to make sure she doesn't know about Chuck's condition;
for example, he prepares a candlelight dinner (because turning on the lights is too
painful for him), but tells her it's because the power company turned off his
After dinner, though, Rebecca gets a phone call, and Chuck grabs
the phone out of her hand and throws it away. Unwilling to tell her about his condition,
he instead tells her that he threw the phone out of her hand because it was rude of
her to take a phone call. Understandably upset, Rebecca leaves.
Jimmy tries to persuade Chuck to tell Rebecca the truth, leading
to the following exchange (the key section is italicized):
Jimmy: You gotta do something!
You can't let her leave like this. Just tell her what's going on!
Chuck: No. No.
Jimmy: She'll understand.
Would you rather she think you're a raging prick than know the
Here, Chuck is not actually saying "no" to Jimmy's question—we
can clearly see from his behaviour that he would rather let Rebecca
think he's a raging prick (i.e., a huge jerk) rather than let her know the
truth about his condition. So when Chuck says "no" here, he's
not actually answering Jimmy's question; instead, he's responding to
Jimmy's illocutionary force.
Jimmy's question here is not really a question. He's not
really asking Chuck what he wants; he's not genuinely requesting information.
Instead, he's trying to persuade Chuck to tell Rebecca the truth; when
Jimmy says "Would you rather she think you're a raging prick than
know the truth?", what he's really doing is presenting a reason, or
an argument, for why Chuck should do what Jimmy is suggesting.
So, when Chuck says "no", he doesn't really mean
"No, I wouldn't rather she think I'm a raging prick than know the truth."
He actually means "No, I won't do what you are telling me to do"; he is
saying "no" to Jimmy's argument or suggestion (i.e., to his illocutionary
force), rather than to his literal question.
A hope or an order?
One more example to wrap up. A few modules ago, we finished our
introduction to performatives by looking at the Hong Kong Legislative Council "oath row".
Now let's close out our discussion of illocutionary force with another political
controversy from yet another country that pretends to have democracy
only having a farcical imitation of it: the United States.
One of many scandals around the beginning of the Donald Trump presidency
in 2017 was related to Trump's first national security advisor, who ended up being under
investigation for some stuff that we need not concern ourselves with here. Anyway,
the investigation was being carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which
was headed by a guy named James Comey. (To summarize: one jerk was investigating another
jerk who worked for a third jerk.) At some point,
brought Comey into his
office and told him, "I hope you can let this go" (where "this" was referring
to the investigation). The reason this caused a scandal is because a US president is
not supposed to use their authority to interfere with investigations, particularly
investigations of their own allies. (Of course, pretty much all US presidents do
do things like this—even the beloved ones were pretty much all lawless jerks in
their own way—but that doesn't really excuse it. Anyway.)
When Trump was criticized for this, his supporters argued that he
didn't do anything wrong because he didn't order Comey to abandon the
investigation. And, sure, he didn't use an explicit performative—he didn't
utter the locution "I order you to let this investigation go". But most
reasonable people would interpret "I hope that you can do this", coming from
their boss, as having the illocutionary force of an order anyway, and Comey later
said this is the way he interpreted it.
Austion makes quite a big deal (in his Lecture IX and Lecture X) about how we
can distinguish between illocutionary and perlocutionary acts. It turns
out it's a bit difficult, because distinguishing causes and effects
is always pretty difficult. For comparison, he talks about physical
actions, like killing a rabbit (by using a gun)—this "action" could
be broken down into many sub-actions, where each one is an "effect" of
a smaller, earlier action. For example, I could say "I killed the rabbit",
but actually killing the rabbit is an effect of my action of shooting
a gun. And I could say "I shot the gun at the rabbit", but that is an
effect of my action of squeezing a trigger. And pulling the trigger is
an effect of my action of curling my finger. And so on and so forth.
Anyway, a similar challenge comes up with speech acts: how do we
distinguish between illocutionary acts and the perlocutionary effects
we cause with them?
Are there any ways we could do this? Any logical ways, or perhaps any
grammatical tricks (just like we could use "hereby" to test if an
utterance is performative, are there any words or sentence constructions
that can help us distinguish between illocutionary and perlocutionary