In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Speech Acts

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Histories
  • Textbooks and Anthologies
  • Philosophy’s Linguistic Turn
  • Austin’s Illocutions
  • Conventionalist versus Intentionalist Approaches
  • Indirect Speech Acts
  • Performatives
  • The Distinction between Illocutionary Force and Semantic Content
  • Speech Acts and Attitude Expression
  • Illocutionary Distortion

Philosophy Speech Acts
Mitchell Green
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0300


An ancient and dominant assumption in philosophy is that the central or even essential function of language is to describe how things are. Effective resistance to this assumption begins with appreciation of the variety of nondescriptive uses of language that are important for cognition and action. This resistance gave birth to what is now known as the theory of speech acts. Speech acts are best defined in terms of speaker meaning as that notion is commonly used in contemporary philosophy of language. Accordingly, as the expression is used here, a speech act is an act of speaker meaning that can (though need not) be performed by saying that one is doing so. Promising is a speech act on this criterion because one can promise by saying, “I promise to do so and so,” under the right conditions, and in any promise one must also speaker mean something. Insinuating and convincing are not speech acts in the sense used here because one cannot insinuate something or convince someone by saying that one is doing so. An utterance of words—such as when one recites lines from a song while testing a microphone—is an act of speech but not a speech act. Speech act theory has illuminated many socially and cognitively significant, non-descriptive acts that can be carried out with words; it has even shed light on descriptive discourse. These achievements have revealed a normative structure underlying language use and have provided tools applicable to a variety of fields within philosophy such as philosophy of mind, legal philosophy, meta-ethics, aesthetics, and epistemology. Beyond philosophy, speech act theory has also influenced literary theory, jurisprudence, and artificial intelligence.

General Overviews and Histories

Austin 1962 is the best-known source for contemporary discussion of speech acts. An edited version of Austin’s 1955 William James lectures, it is written in a style accessible to nonspecialists. (See Sbisà 2007 for an exegesis that resolves interpretive difficulties with Austin’s text.) Austin here distinguishes among locutionary acts (which are utterances of meaningful words, phrases, or sentences), illocutionary acts (which are the same as our speech acts as defined in the Introduction), and perlocutionary acts (which are the characteristic effects of illocutionary acts). He also introduces the notion of the performative (in which a speaker makes explicit at least one of the speech acts she is performing), and he provides an account of the varieties of infelicity to which speech acts are prone. Searle 1969 and Bach and Harnish 1979 are also wide-ranging treatments that have been influential; they are discussed further in the section Conventionalist versus Intentionalist Approaches. Huang 2012 contains useful definitions of terms typically encountered in the literature on speech act theory.

  • Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. 2d ed. Edited by J. Urmson and M. Sbisà. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.

    Groundbreaking work that is the source of contemporary research on speech acts.

  • Bach, K., and R. Harnish. Linguistic Communication and Speech Acts. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1979.

    Important work systematizing speech act theory in terms of the Gricean framework of communicative intentions.

  • Green, M. “Speech Acts.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Summer 2015.

    More extensive than Sadock 2004 (cited under Textbooks and Anthologies), providing a fairly broad treatment of speech act theory.

  • Huang, Y. The Oxford Dictionary of Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    Contains definitions of most of the terms commonly found in the speech act literature.

  • Sbisà, M. “How to Read Austin.” Pragmatics 17 (2007): 461–473.

    DOI: 10.1075/prag.17.3.06sbi

    Valuable exegetical essay on Austin 1962 that resolves an apparent inconsistency in the text.

  • Sbisà, M., and K. Turner, eds. Handbook of Pragmatics. Vol. 2, Pragmatics of Speech Actions. Berlin: de Gruyter-Mouton, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110214383

    Contains state-of-the-art essays on a number of speech-act phenomena, including assertions, questions, requests, praise, promises, apologies, and compliments.

  • Searle, J. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139173438

    Major work systematizing Austin by arguing that all illocutionary forces may be understood in terms of a small set of primitive notions; emphasizes the conventional underpinnings of speech acts. See also Conventionalist versus Intentionalist Approaches.

  • Smith, B. “Toward a History of Speech Act Theory.” In Speech Acts, Meaning and Intentions: Critical Approaches to the Philosophy of John Searle. Edited by A. Burkhardt, 29–61. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1990.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110859485

    The best history of speech act theory currently available.

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