7 junio, 2024

Speech acts: concept, types and examples

We explain what speech acts are, the types that exist and several examples

What are speech acts?

Speech acts are statements considered at the same time actions. That is, when says something at the same time does something, as in «I promise»: the speaker commits his will at a certain time. Or when saying «I accept», the speaker, in addition to enunciating a proposition, is approving, admitting, conceding or consenting to something.

In other words, speech acts happen when we act on words. Examples of words that constitute an action could be «invite», «congratulate», «advise», «discuss», «describe», among thousands more.

The theory of speech acts was proposed by the English philosopher JL Austin in a book titled precisely How to do things with wordsfrom 1962, and later expanded by his disciple John Searle.

Searle indicated that speech acts transform the communication reality between two or more speakers, in the sense that every speech act promotes or expects an action on the part of the interlocutor.

Thus, through speech acts, information is requested, orders are given, apologies are offered, love, anger, sadness, indifference or any other emotion is expressed, threats, invitations, requests are made. In short, they are the basis of human communication.

Types of talking acts

There is a first classification of speech acts, which are divided into three types: locutionary acts, illocutionary acts, and perlocutionary acts. They are also divided into direct and indirect acts and performative speech acts, which in turn are subdivided into assertive, directive, commitatory, declarative, expressive, and affirmative.

locutionary speech acts

Locutionary speech acts are the action of speaking, that is, when you say something, when you activate the vocal apparatus (consisting of a set of organs that include the lungs, larynx, vocal cords, nose, and the entire mouth). ) to make any statement.

illocutionary speech acts

Illocutionary or illocutionary speech acts are those that express the intention of the speaker. It is the performance of some communicative function, such as a promise, a threat, an invitation or a statement.

Examples: «I promise I’ll stop by your house to talk», «I’ll invite you to the party on Saturday», «I’ll be ready for whatever you want».

perlocutionary acts

They are the actions that occur in response to illocutionary speech acts. For example, when someone says «Will you pass me the plate?», the person to whom it is addressed will pass the plate; or when another communicative intention is expressed (“What time is it?”, “Tell me your address”, “Help me move this piece of furniture”), the interlocutor will do what is requested.

direct speech acts

In these speech acts, both the locutionary and illocutionary aspects coincide in intention. That is, when you say «Close the door» or «Come with me», the expression of the statements fully coincides with the communicative intention. In these cases, the linguistic expression agrees with a request or an order.

indirect speech acts

They are speech acts that do not directly reflect the communicative purpose. The linguistic expression does not match the intention.

For example: «The dishes are dirty.» If this prayer is said in a family setting, someone is expected to come and do the dishes, but note that no one in particular is being directly asked to do it.

Another example can be: «Can you pass me the pepper?» It is an indirect way of asking an interlocutor to do a specific action (the direct way would be «pass me the pepper»).

performative speech acts

Performative speech acts, according to Searle, are those in which exactly what is said is done. Performative verbs are used, that is, those that express a movement, action, state, condition, etc., of the subject or speaker and name the action.

When a speaker says «I promise», he is promising. This forced the philosopher to subdivide performative speech acts according to communicative intention.

For example, if someone says «It is possible that I will go to the concert tomorrow», the sender expresses a possibility. But if he says “I will go to the concert”, he expresses an action that will take effect in the near future. Or if he says «I promise I’ll go,» he states a promise.

But for them to be performative speech acts, certain conditions must be met: the sender, the receiver, and the context must be adequate. For example, not everyone can acquit or marry someone, or declare a war.

On the other hand, performative linguistic expressions are usually expressed in the present indicative and in the first person singular: “I promise”, “I declare”, “I absolve”.

They are also called representatives. With them, the speaker accepts, corrects or denies something with a different level of certainty. They also say something about reality, such as “the cinema was empty” or “I think the same as you”.

directive speech acts

They are the speech acts through which the speaker wants the interlocutor to do something, or is intended to influence their behavior. Some examples: «Bring the math book tomorrow», «Get out of here», «Forgive me», «Take the medicine».

Directive speech acts are formed using verbs such as order, beg, appoint, dismiss, etc.

compromising speech acts

They are the speech acts that compromise or condition the behavior of the speaker; with them, the issuer assumes an obligation.

Examples of these acts are «I promise you», «I won’t miss the meeting», «I’ll come to visit you on Sunday», «I guarantee it», «When I’m free, I’ll find out what you ask of me».

declarative speech acts

These acts change the state of things, and for this reason it is the authority figures who carry them out. For example, the judge or the priest when they declare a couple husband and wife. Or when they acquit (sins or crimes, also in the case of priests or judges).

Certify, inaugurate, bless, declare, baptize, are some of the verbs that are used in declarative speech acts. They are common in the language of law and statutes, as in «The contract is terminated.»

Fathers and mothers, when blessing their children, use their position of authority to do so. Or when they declare “You are not going to the beach this weekend”.

expressive speech acts

They are the illocutionary acts through which the speaker tells how he feels or talks about his attitudes.

Examples of these speech acts are «I’m so happy today», «I feel terrible, I think I’ve caught Covid», «I’m so sorry, the last thing I wanted was to make you feel bad», «I look like new».

affirmative speech acts

They are those in which the speaker is committed to what he says. For example, when one says: «I maintain my opinion on this subject», «I swear I saw a shadow in the garden», «I insist: the flat earthers are wrong».


Searle, J.R. (1965). What is a speech act? Spanish version in Teorema Magazine. Taken from upv.es. Cohen, A.D. (1996). Speech Acts (chapter 12). Sociolinguistics and language teaching. Taken from ndl.ethernet.edu.et. Barros Garcia, MJ (2010). Speech acts and value courtesy: invitations. Taken from um.es. Speech Act (2021). Cervantes Virtual Center. Taken from cvc.cervantes.es. Speech Act (2021). Taken from dicenlen.eu.

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