Illocutionary force

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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 things.

Speech acts

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.

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 act).

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 doing poorly.

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 electricity.

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):

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 while actually 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, Trump 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.

Video summary

In-class activities

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 acts)?

⟵ How the idea of performatives collapsed
Speech acts and their rules ⟶

by Stephen Politzer-Ahles. Last modified on 2022-03-31. CC-BY-4.0.