Definition of term Speech Acts

The concept of Speech Acts was first developed by J. L. Austin (How To Do Things With Words, 1962) and elaborated by John Searle (Speech Acts, 1969). When we talk, we do such things as greet, promise, warn, order, invite, congratulate, advise, thank, insult, and these are known as speech acts. From a literary critical point of view, Speech Act Theory can be a useful tool for those literary conversations where characters appear to be saying one thing but are really saying another, such as when a character is ostensibly giving advice but is actually delivering a threat; or when a character is ostensibly guiding tourists but is actually flirting. Doing two things at once when we speak is normal, of course; there’s nothing especially literary about it.

An illocutionary act is one of asserting, demanding, promising, suggesting, exclaiming, vowing – essentially, anything that you can plausibly put the pronoun I in front of (I warn you, I urge you, I thank you). Illocutionary acts are declarations of personal view or intent. They are pronouncements from the self to the world. Go! (‘I order you to go’); I give thee my troth (I am in the process of marrying you); knit one, purl one (‘I order you to knit one, purl one). Illocutionary acts don’t have to have an immediate, present, audience: This is my last will and testament. This book belongs to Joe Bloggs.

A perlocutionary act is one of getting somebody to do something; persuading (them to do something), convincing (them to think something), scaring (getting them to be afraid), insulting (getting them to be offended), amusing (getting them to laugh). Perlocutionary acts have an agenda, an agenda directed at someone else. They cannot take the pronoun I so easily: contrast I urge you with *I persuade you; I advise you with *I convince you.


What is a speech act?

Demonstration of Speech Acts in action

Here is an extract from a novel set in Ireland amongst the Anglo-Irish classes:

Sylvia was happily of her age and time. Competent, not wild. Pretty in the right and accepted way. Nothing embarrassingly clever about her. Everything she had was buttoned up and put away in little boxes. She was strong. Two of her girl friends arrived. They came on bicycles and leant their bicycles against the pillars of the portico and came into the cool hall with their rackets in their hands.

“Hallo, Sylvia.”

“Hallo, Cecily, Hallo, Violet.”

“Hallo, Sylvia.”

“Lovely new balls.”

“Who’s coming?”

“Tony, Michael, Major Radley, John Wade, I think.”

“How nice.”

“What fun.”

“I like your new blouse, Violet.”

“I did all that faggot stitch myself.”

“I hope there’s coffee cake for tea.”

“Yes, there is, greedy pig.”

“Are they going to stay late?”

“Shall we dance?”

“We might. There’s lots of cold food for supper.”

“I want to play ‘Whispering.’”

“‘Whispering while you cuddle me near’, oh, it’s so lovely.”

“‘Whispering so no one can hear me.’” They sang, wandering out of the house in their white shoes and stockings, carrying rackets and tennis balls to the smooth sunny grass where white painted seats were set in the wide fern-like shade of a cedar tree. There they waited for their men to arrive, pulling at their clothes and preening their hair like hen birds picking down the lengths of a breast-feather, answering each other absently, their minds put forward to the gay challenge of the hours to come.

Presently Grania came out and joined them. She was not fond of Sylvia’s two girl friends. They played tennis too well and spoke to her almost kindly, but now she felt so grand and whole compared to them, half-living on kisses and glances and little no’s that she was able to compete with them.

“How late your men are,” she said, beginning with a wholesome broadside. She threw herself down on a rug, feeling the short grass with her hands.

“Just as well, dear,” Sylvia said. “It will give you time to tuck your shirt inside your skirt, and even put on a pair of stockings without a hole in them. If you hurry.”

“Oh, I can’t really go to all that bother for a few men.” Grania lay closer to the ground. “Though I admire you girls a lot for the trouble you take about yourselves.”

“How are your other backhand shots getting on?” one of the friends asked.

“Oh, not bad at all.”

“Don’t underrate yourself, dear, you broke the drawing-room window so cleverly yesterday – one of your best strokes.”

Grania giggled. Sylvia couldn’t upset her.


We can date the “age and time” of this fictional conversation because the song lyrics are taken from a real song (Whispering, by John and Malvin Schonberger, 1920, found by googling the lyrics). Sylvia, Cecily and Violet are waiting for the “gay challenge” of young men to show up and partner them at tennis. In fact the occasion is grim rather than gay as the undercurrent is one of determination, if not desperation – the girls are in competition with each other for admirers. Although this is not made explicit we can deduce it from their preening, their lack of attention to each other (“answering each other absently”), and their bitchiness.

“I like your new blouse, Violet.”

“I did all that faggot stitch myself.”

“I hope there’s coffee cake for tea.”

“Yes, there is, greedy pig.”

The four verbs have illocutionary force: I like, I did, I hope, there is. Do any of the utterances have perlocutionary force? Is ‘I did all that faggot stitch myself’ a boast, in which case it is meant to discomfort the co-locutor, or is it mere fact? Is ‘greedy pig’ said in a friendly bantering manner, or is it barbed? In real life, we don’t always know for sure. When Grania joins the three girls we can be certain that there is a malicious undercurrent as they are said to speak to her ‘almost kindly’. The perlocutionary force of ““Just as well, dear,” … “It will give you time to tuck your shirt inside your skirt, and even put on a pair of stockings without a hole in them. If you hurry””, is: ‘You look a mess’. The address-term dear, in context, is sarcastic. Grania reacts in kind: ““Oh, I can’t really go to all that bother for a few men.” … “Though I admire you girls a lot for the trouble you take about yourselves.”” The perlocutionary force of this is: “I don’t need to dress up to attract men as you do, as I already have a boyfriend”, and “It takes you an enormous amount of effort to look the way you do, which you need to do because unlike me you haven’t yet attracted a man”. The girls understand the perlocutionary force and one ripostes: ““How are your other backhand shots getting on?”, referencing Grania’s backhand compliment, which was no compliment at all.

Literary Exercise

Here is a phone conversation from the days of fixed landlines.

But on the seventh ring she answered the phone and the operator asked her to accept a collect call from Pamela. “Will you accept?” she said.

“Yes, I will,” my mother said.

Why it was just as if I had been wandering some Yorkshire moors for many days, through gorse and snow and sleet, even though it was practically ninety degrees outside! “Ma!” I said.

“Where are you?” she said.

“I’m at a pay phone,” I said, “in the middle of a store.”

“So you can’t talk?” she said.

“Not really,” I hissed, blinking over at the man. Now that my eyes had adjusted, I saw what a mockery of humanity this guy was. Gaunt, dressed in overalls with a soiled bib, swollen nose, and greasy red-blond hair and beard – he was playing some type of board game, alone, and there was something vaguely familiar about him. “Are you at your father’s?” she said.

“Near,” I said.

“And how is he?” she said.

“Uh-huh,” I said

“Deceased?” she said.

“Uh-huh,” I said.

There was a pause. “But otherwise, are you having a good time?”

“I can’t hear you very well,” I said. “There’s a fly in my ear.”

“Do you want me to drive there?” she said. “If I can find a substitute to teach my classes?”

“No!” I said. “That would only make things worse.” Much as I loved my mother, I knew that very quickly after I saw her I would revert to adolescent behavior, due to the fact that during my adolescence I had never rebelled, and some part of me was making up for that now.

“Are you depressed?” she said.

“A little,” I said.

“Maybe you’re getting your period,” she said.

There was something strangely unsatisfying about the conversation. Maybe too much time had gone by since we had last spoken and she had changed. “Well, this isn’t much of a conversation,” she said. “I guess you can’t talk.”

“That’s right,” I said.

“Something remarkable has happened here,” she said.

“What?” I said.

“One of my students put her blue jeans in the washing machine and when she opened it she discovered a British Revolutionary War uniform. It’s in excellent condition, practically new, and we’re going to take it to the costume and clothing department of the Metropolitan Museum.”

“Aw, Ma,” I said. “She probably had one lying around or made it.”

“I don’t think so,” she said. It would be impossible to fake it; they can do tests to determine its age through the fabric.”

“So what do you think happened?” I said.

“I believe the washing machine was temporarily attached to some conduit opening onto the past. Now somebody in the Revolutionary War has a pair of new Levi’s.”

“If only something like that would happen to me!” I said.

“I know,” my mother said.

“I would give anything for just one experience like that. Or if aliens landed and took me in their spacecraft, and injected me with some painful substance and then deposited me on the highway!”

“Have you seen any spacecraft out there?” my mother said.

“No,” I said.

“Why don’t you and Abdhul go out at night and look?” she said.

“Mm,” I said, keeping one eye on Silas Marner. He was really rank, too, just my luck. Didn’t it offend him to live with his own odor, or did he enjoy it? It reminded me of a man I had once found through an ad in the local paper to type some of my essays and my thesis in college. He had smelled, too. Human beings were very odd, I had forgotten this after being away from them in the woods.

“You really should keep your eyes out,” my mother said. “I was just reading, how recently the CIA captured an alien, and apparently he’s escaped. I’d send you the clipping, if you had a mailing address.”

“Does the alien – have a strong scent?” I said in a hiss.

“What are you saying?” my mother said. “Does somebody there smell?

“Yes!” I said triumphantly. That was all the proof I needed just now that my mother and I were still attuned to one another.

Identify any perlocutionary utterances from the excerpt above and consider how they further the conversation. Write your answer below:

Compare your answer with the sample answer below:


The speaker can’t speak openly because ‘Silas Marner’ will overhear her. Therefore she uses indirect speech acts in the hope that her mother will grasp her intent. The exchanges about the Revolutionary War uniform and space aliens are not literal illocutionary acts, they are place-holders for the real conversation which cannot take place. Their perlocutionary force is “I want to talk to you”, “Are you alright?” and “Yes, I am”.

Teaching Point

Conversations in literature sometimes convey more than the participants purport to say, either to each other, or to the reader. Speech Act Theory can be useful for analysing conversations with multiple agendas.

Whispering Jack Smith - Whispering


Honey I have something to tell you,

And it’s worthwhile listening to;

Put your little head on my shoulder,

So that I can whisper to you:

Whispering while you cuddle near me,

Whispering so no one can hear me,

Each little whisper seems to cheer me,

I know it’s true, there’s no one, dear but you;

You’re whispering why you’ll never leave me,

Whispering why you’ll never grieve me;

Whisper and say that you believe me,

Whispering that I love you.

Whispering, by John Schonberger (music) and Malvin Schonberger (lyrics), 1920