...speaking a language is performing speech acts, acts such as making statements, giving commands, asking questions, making promises, and so on. - John Searle

Suppose that during dinner one evening you get up, walk across the room, turn on the spigot, and pour yourself a glass of water - clearly, you performed an action. Now, suppose that you are having dinner and you ask a dinner partner to get you a glass of water. This also is an action ... the act of asking. Speech, then, is not something that just happens by coincidence. Rather, to speak is to act.

This way of thinking about speech is important because it provides insight into the utility of human communication - namely, that humans use communication as a tool to further their own ends.

One of the original scholars in this area, Searle, identifies four basic categories of speech acts as: utterances, propositional utterances, illocutionary utterances and perlocutionary utterances. These are not separate and independent of one another. Rather, they are similar to building blocks -- humans make utterances, some of which are propositional, some of which are illocutionary, and some of which are perlocutionary. The following sections present each type of speech act in turn.


An utterance is a spoken word or string of spoken words. At the simplest level, to utter is simply to say a word with no particular forethought or intention to communicate a meaning.

For example, if you put your hand on the hood of a car that has been sitting out in the hot sun, you might quickly pull it back while uttering the word, "Oh!"

In this case, you don't intend to communicate meaning by this - it is simply a reflex action brought on by surprise. (Someone who hears you might take it mean something, but you did not plan on it.)

Examples of "pure" utterances include such as sing-song rhymes while jumping rope or making choices (as, for example, "one potato, two potato, three potato, four..."), singing "scales" for practice, and other similar meaningless expressions.

Propositional Utterance

A more meaningful type of utterance makes reference to or describes a real or imaginary object. In the act of making a propositional utterance the speaker gains the opportunity to interact. If speaker and listener are using the same code (that is, if they speak the same language), and if both recognize propositional the object to which the speaker is referring, then it becomes possible for them to share meanings.

Propositional utterances need not be sentences, and they do not have to intend anything. Any phrase that identifies or specifies something is a propositional utterance. It is important to see that utterances and propositions are not separate categories -- a propositional utterance is a particular kind of utterance.

Illocutionary Utterances

An illocutionary utterance is spoken with the intention of making contact with a listener. Illocutionary utterances are usually sentences that contain propositional utterances, that is, they refer illocutionary to things in the world -- but it is their intentional nature that is of the most importance.

Once it becomes clear that the speaker's intention is important to the meaning of an utterance, it can be seen that the same set of words might have different meanings depending on the speaker's intention. This leads scholars to further categorize illocutionary utterances in terms of how they communicate such intent.

For example, consider the sentence: "I'm tired." Depending on the intention of the speaker, this utterance could mean any of the following:

I'm tired.


A friend has just asked how I feel
To answer the question
I feel fatigued
Someone I'm trying to avoid has asked me if I'd like to go dancing tonight
To politely avoid her
I'd rather not
My husband and I are watching a football game on television
That we do something else
Could we turn this off?

or Request

It's late and my small children are asking if we can go to the movies
To put them to bed
No, go to bed

Thus, depending upon the context and the speaker's intention, a given utterance might become a statement, a command, a question, a request, a promise, and so on.

Perlocutionary Utterances

Illocutionary speech acts may be intended to provide information, solicit answers toperlocutionary questions, give praise, and so on, but they don't necessarily require that the listener change his or her behavior. Perlocutionary utterances, on the other hand, do attempt to effect a change.

As with the others, perlocutionary speech acts are utterances; they include propositions, and they intend interaction with the receiver. Thus, Searle's model consists of a series of levels, each of which forms as the foundation for the levels that rest upon it. q4031

speech act model
The Speech Act Model

It is important to remember that each speech act may be followed by a return act on the part of the receiver. The next section of this tutorial will consider how communication with feedback leads to the kind of continuing communication that supports human relationships.

exampleQuiz on Speech Act Types

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