Teaching and Learning Guide for: Locutionary, Illocutionary, Perlocutionary



This guide accompanies the following article: Mikhail Kissine, ‘Locutionary, Illocutionary, Perlocutionary’, Language and Linguistics Compass 2/6 (2008) pp. 1189–1202. DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-818x.2008.00093.x. The terms locutionary act, illocutionary act and perlocutionary act originate from Austin’s classical How to do with words. The corresponding notions, however, prove difficult to define. Yet, lack of careful delineating of each level can lead to important theoretical confusions. This Teaching and Learning Guide explains why proper understanding of Austin’s trichotomy is crucial for semantics and pragmatics.

Author's Introduction

Most contemporary discussions in semantics and pragmatics employ – implicitly or explicitly – some or all of the concepts of locutionary,illocutionary or perlocutionary acts. These notions originate from Austin’s posthumous and notoriously intricate book, How to do things with words. The point of interest for the linguist, however, is not so much the exegesis of Austin’s ideas, as the precise delimitation of these levels of meaning. First, it is important to characterise the locutionary level – which falls short of any illocutionary force – to avoid contaminating analyses of utterance meanings with matters relative to the illocutionary level, viz. to the speech act performed. Second, the precise definition of illocutionary acts is an extremely difficult matter. However, the first, imperative step must be a clear demarcation between perlocutionary acts – relative to causal effects of the utterances – and the utterance’s illocutionary force. Third, to assess theories of illocutionary forces, one must take into account the requirements for psychological and empirical plausibility. For instance, classical Gricean theories of illocutionary force attribution link it with the cognitive capacity to perform complex multi-layered mental state attributions, which is incompatible with the data available on the pragmatic and cognitive functioning of young children. In sum, gaining better understanding of the tripartite distinction between the locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary levels is not a taxonomical exercise, but a prerequisite for anyone willing to tackle semantic and/or pragmatic issues with the right tools.

Suggested Reading

Austin, J.L. (1975) How to do things with words, Second edition, Oxford, Oxford University Press. Lecture VIII.

Difficult reading, but essential to understand Austin’s intuitions and the origin of the debate.

Strawson, P.F. (1964) “Intention and convention in speech acts”, Philosophical Review, 73, 439–60.

Classical criticism of Austin’s claim abut the conventionality of illocutionary acts and first formulation of a Gricean theory of speech acts.

Strawson, P.F. (1973) “Austin and ‘Locutionary meaning’”, in I. Berlin et al. (eds.) Essays on J.L. Austin, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 46–68.

This equally classical paper sheds light onto the difficult notions of rhetic and locutionary acts; it paves the way for using these concepts interchangeably.

Recanati, F. (1987) Meaning and Force. The pragmatics of performative utterances, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. Chapter 9.

This is a lucid discussion and elaboration of Strawson’s conception of the locuitonary act as a potential for the illocutionary level.

Wilson, D. and Sperber, D. (1988) “Mood and the analysis of non-declarative sentences”, in J. Dancy et al. (eds.) Human Agency, Language, Duty and Value. Philosophical essayes in honour of J.O. Urmson, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 77–101.

This paper gives important reasons for not confusing the analysis of mood – of the locutionary level – with the analysis of speech acts.

Kissine, M. (2009) “Illocutionary forces and what is said”, Mind and Language, 24, 122–38.

Provides a definition of locutionary acts as linguistic representations of mental states, and lays grounds for a theory of speech acts as reasons to believe or to act.

Bach, K. (1994) “Conversational impliciture”, Mind and Language, 9, 124–62.

An important defence of the distinction between illocutionary and locutionary acts. However, the reader should be warned that Bach conceives of locutionary acts as context-independent propositional radicals, which is not a self-evident position.

Alston (2000) Illocutionary Acts and Sentence Meaning, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, Chapter 2.

Contains a clear and lucid criticism of theories that confuse illocutionary and perlocutionary levels.

Dominicy, M. (2008) “Epideictic rhetoric and the representation of human decision and choice”, in K. Korta and J. Garmendia (eds.) Meaning, Intentions, and Argumentation, Stanford, CSLI, 179–207.

This paper contains a useful test for distinguishing verbs that describe illocutionary acts form those that describe perlocutionary acts. It is also the first proposal to formulate the illocutionary/perlocutionary divide in Davidsonian terms.

Focus Questions

  • 1 What kind of philosophy of action is called for by the distinction between locutions, perlocutions and illocutions?
  • 2 Should the locutionary level be always fully propositional?
  • 3 Can illocutionary acts be characterised in terms of prototypical perlocutional effects?
  • 4 Should illocutionary acts be divided in conventional (institutional) and non-conventional (non-insitutional) ones?
  • 5 Are there good reasons for singling out a locutionary level?
  • 6  Does the attribution of illocutionary forces presuppose a complex mindreading process?

Connexion with to Related Material in Lectures or Discussions

  • 1 The distinction between the locutionary and illocutionary levels is crucial for any discussion about the semantics/pragmatics interface. Many scholars hastily characterise semantics as related to sentence-meaning and pragmatics as concerning the speech act performed. However, one should not take for granted that any level where the meaning is context-dependant is necessarily that of the illocutionary act performed.
  • 2 This distinction can also be relevant for the discussions about the meaning of moods. For instance, the imperative mood is often analysed in terms of the directive illocutionary force. However, there are cases where utterances of imperative sentences do not correspond to a directive speech act.
  • 3 The distinction between perlocutionary and illocutionary acts remains central for any attempt to classify or to define illocutionary forces.
  • 4 Different conceptions of illocutionary acts are important for discussions about the ontogeny and phylogeny of the pragmatic dimension(s) of linguistic competence.