Speech acts by Don L. F. Nilsen conditions on performatives

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  • by Don L. F. Nilsen


  • Subject must be 1st person.
  • Verb must be active.
  • Verb must be non-durative.
  • Adverb must be “hereby.”
  • Sentence must be positive, not negative.
  • Sentence must be Imperative or Declarative.
  • Verb must perform the act.
  • Must meet felicity conditions (authority, etc.)
  • Must meet sincerity conditions (not a joke, etc.)
  • Can be larger than a sentence (e.g. The Declaration of Independence)
  • (Mey 107ff)


  • “There is a policeman at the corner.”
  • This could be a warning, an assurance, a dare, a hint, or a reminder to go and take your car out of the handicapped space you are parked in.

“I promise I’ll be there tomorrow.”

  • “I promise I’ll be there tomorrow.”
  • This could be a threat or a promise, depending on whether his presence tomorrow is a disadvantage or an advantage to the listener. Contrast the sentence above with:
  • “If you don’t behave, I promise you there’s going to be trouble.” This sentence says it’s a “promise,” but it’s a “threat.”
  • (Searle Speech Acts 58)
  • When he was campaigning, Clinton said he would not turn away any Haitian refugees.
  • When he became President, Clinton turned away Haitian refugees.
  • Clinton said that the conditions had changed.
  • Based on this, Daniel Schorr on National Public Radio said, “Campaigning is not the same as governing,” because the conditions are not the same.
  • (Mey 127)


  • Authority
    • Person
    • Place
    • Time
    • Manner
  • Sincerity
    • Verbal Sincerity
    • Intonational Sincerity
    • Behavioral Sincerity


  • “Could you move over a bit?”
  • “Yes” (without moving is inappropriate)
  • Moving (without “Yes” is appropriate)
  • NOTE: “Could you move over a bit” is a precondition to the actual speech act, “Move over.”
  • (Mey 111)

Do you know what time it is?

  • Do you know what time it is?
  • Do you have the correct time?
  • Can you tell me how to get to the men’s room?
  • Do you see the salt anywhere?
  • It’s cold in here.
  • Isn’t this soup rather bland?
  • Why can’t you shut up?
  • NOTE: These are preconditions
  • (Mey 126-127, 135)

I strongly suggest you shut your mouth.

  • I strongly suggest you shut your mouth.
  • Sometimes it’s a good idea to shut up.
  • I wonder if you really should do all that talking.
  • I wouldn’t say more, if I were you.
  • Remember the proverb, “Speech is silver….?”
  • How about if you just shut up?
  • (Mey 136)


  • “Would you like to tell us, Mr. Khan, why you’ve applied to Middleton College?
  • This is known as “fishing for compliments.”
  • (Mey 213)


  • I promise not to keep this promise.
  • Do not read this sign.
  • You did a great job, and I’m not being polite.
  • (Mey 129, 177)
  • George Lakoff wrote a book entitled, Don’t Think of an Elephant.


  • Splitters feel that there are many different types of speech acts. Verschueren says that some splitters have as many as five hundred or six hundred different types of speech acts.
  • (Verschueren 10)
  • Searle is a lumper. He has only five classes of Speech Acts: Representatives, Directives, Commissives, Expressives and Declarations.
  • (Searle 1979)
  • We could lump all of these into a single class: “Performatives.”


  • I beg your excellency to please accept these keys to the city as a token of our humble submission to your excellency (to commander of enemy troops who have captured a city)
  • *I (hereby) promise to set fire to your house.
  • *I (hereby) warn you that you will be awarded the Nobel Prize.
  • *I (hereby) warn you that your lawn will turn brown in November.
  • Under penalty of law, do not remove this tag.
  • (Mey 130-131)


  • In Mexico in the old days, the Federales would pull a person over and ask to see their driver’s license.
  • Before handing over the driver’s license the driver would attach a $20 bill onto the back of the license.
  • Nothing was said by either party. Was this, therefore, a bribe, or not?
  • (Mey 211)

MOTHER (Calling out the window to child in yard): Joshua, what are you doing?

  • MOTHER (Calling out the window to child in yard): Joshua, what are you doing?
  • JOSHUA: Nothing…

“What I like best is doing nothing…. It’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it. ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say, ‘Oh, nothing,’ and then you go and do it.”

  • “What I like best is doing nothing…. It’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it. ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say, ‘Oh, nothing,’ and then you go and do it.”
  • (Milne, The House on Pooh Corner Chapter 10)
  • STUDENT: I was going to talk to you about my term paper, if it’s all right.
  • STUDENT: When do you think you’ll have it marked then?
  • PROFESSOR: Miriam, I hope you brought the book.
  • PROFESSOR: Okay, but please remember it next time.
  • (Blum-Kulka 176)


  • Locutionary Force (what is said)
  • Illocutionary Force (what is done)
  • Perlocutionary Force (the effect)


  • Commissives (Affect Speaker, Subjective)
  • TYPES: Oath, Offer, Promise
  • Declaratives (Change the Macrocosmic Social World)
  • TYPES: Baptism, Marriage
  • Directives (Change the Microcosmic Social World)
  • TYPES: Command, Request
  • Expressives (Feelings of Speaker)
  • TYPES: Apology, Thanks
  • (Mey 120, Searle 1977, 34)


  • Interrogatives (Hearer Knows Best)
  • TYPES: Closed (yes-no), Loaded, Open
  • Imperatives (Directives) (Affect Hearer)
  • TYPES: Request, Requirement, Threat, Warning
  • Performatives (Affect world)
  • TYPES: Agreement, Appointment, Baptism, Declaration of Independence, Dedication, Marriage
  • Representatives (Objective Descriptive Statements)
  • TYPES: Statement that is either True or False


  • Some speech acts like betting and thanking need an “uptake” from the listener. Consider the following:
  • BAR-LEV: Sir, I want to thank you for your cooperation and I want to thank you very much.
  • IDI AMIN: You know I did not succeed.

!BAR-LEV: I have been requested by a friend with good connections in the government to thank you for your cooperation. I don’t know what was meant by it, but I think you do know.

  • !BAR-LEV: I have been requested by a friend with good connections in the government to thank you for your cooperation. I don’t know what was meant by it, but I think you do know.
  • IDI AMIN: I don’t know because I’ve only now returned hurriedly from Mauritius


  • Bar-Lev is an Israeli colonel
  • Idi Amin is the President of Uganda
  • Israeli paratroopers have entered Uganda without permission
  • Idi Amin heard that this was planned and left for Mauritius
  • Therefore if Idi Amin accepts the thanks, it means he agrees with the paratrooper drop. Since he was not in the country, he can’t be held responsible.
  • (Mey 282-283)


  • The chief beadle In Dutch universities knows when doctoral defenses begin.
  • After the defense has been in progress for 45 minutes, he ceremoniously enters the defense stamps his staff on the floor, and proclaims in Latin “Hora est.” (Time is up!).
  • (Verschueren 93)

References # 1:

  • References # 1:
  • Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1962.
  • Blum-Kulka, Shoshana, Juliane House and Gabriele Kasper eds. Cross-Cultural Pragmatics: Requests and Apologies. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1989.
  • Eschholz, Paul, Alfred Rosa, and Virginia Clark. Language Awareness. Bedford/St. Martins, 2009.
  • Mey, Jacob L., ed. Concise Encyclopedia of Pragmatics. Oxford, England: Elsevier Science/Pergamon, 1998.
  • Mey, Jacob L. Pragmatics: An Introduction, 2nd Edition. Oxford, England, 2001.

References # 2

  • References # 2
  • Mey, Jacob L. When Voices Clash: A Study in Literary Pragmatics. Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter, 1999.
  • Mey, Jacob L. Whose Language? A Study in Linguistic Pragmatics. Philadelphia, PA: Benjamins, 1985.
  • Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Encyclopedia of 20th Century American Humor. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.
  • Raskin, Victor. The Primer of Humor Research. New York, NY: Mouton de Gruyter, 2008.
  • Schiffrin, Deborah. Approaches to Discourse. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1994, pp. 49-96.

References # 3

  • References # 3
  • Searle, John R. A Classification of Illocutionary Acts.” In Proceedings of the Texas Conference on Performatives, Presuppositions, and Implicatures. Eds. Andy Rogers, Bob Wall and John P. Murphy, Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1977, 27-45.
  • Searle, John R. “The Classification of Illocutionary Acts.” Language in Society 8 (1979): 137-151.
  • Searle, John R. "Indirect Speech Acts." Syntax and Semantics III: Speech Acts. New York, NY: Academic Press, 1975, 59-82.
  • Searle, John R. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
  • Verschueren, Jef. Understanding Pragmatics. London, England: Arnold, 1999.

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