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10.5: Conclusion

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    A speech act is an action that speakers perform by speaking. Languages typically have grammatical ways of distinguishing sentence types (moods) corresponding to at least three basic speech acts: statements, commands, and questions. When the speaker’s intended speech act (or illocutionary force) corresponds to the sentence type that is chosen, a direct speech act is performed. In addition, the declarative sentence type is generally used for a special class of direct speech acts which we call explicit performatives. When the speaker’s intended speech act does not correspond to the sentence type that is chosen, an indirect speech act is performed. Indirect speech acts are conversational implicatures, and their interpretation can be explained in Gricean terms; but in addition, they are often partly conventionalized.

    All speech acts are subject to felicity conditions, that is, conditions that must be fulfilled in order for the speech act to be felicitous(i.e., valid and appropriate). Successful indirect speech acts typically involve literal sentence meanings which state or query the felicity conditions for the primary (i.e., intended) speech act.

    Further reading

    Birner (2012/2013: ch.6) presents a useful overview of the issues addressed in this chapter. Austin (1961), based on a radio address he delivered on the BBC, provides a readable, non-technical introduction to his theory of performatives. Searle (1975) provides a concise summary of his theory of indirect speech acts. Brown & Levinson (1978) is the foundational study of sociolinguistic and pragmatic aspects of politeness across languages. The volumes edited by Blum-Kulka et al. (1989) and Gass & Neu (2006) contain studies on indirect speech acts in cross-cultural and second language communication.

    Discussion exercises

    A. Identifying indirect speech acts. Identify both the literal and primary act in each of the following indirect speech acts (square brackets are used to provide [context]):

    1. [S1: My motorcycle is out of the shop; let’s go for another ride.]
      S2: Do you think I’m crazy?
    2. [senior citizen dialing the police:]
      I’m alone in the house and someone is trying to break down my door.
    3. [S1: I’m really sorry for bumping into your car.]
      S2: Don’t give it another thought.

    B. Indirect speech act strategies. Assume that the felicity conditions for offers are essentially the same as for promises. (The main difference is that an offer does not count as a commitment on the part of the speaker unless and until the addressee accepts it.) Try to make up one example of a sentence that would work as an indirect offer for each of the following strategies:

    1. by querying the preparatory conditions of the direct offer;

    2. by stating the preparatory conditions of the direct offer;

    3. by stating the propositional content of the direct offer;

    4. by stating the sincerity condition of the direct offer.

    Homework exercises

    A. Performatives.a State whether the following utterances would be naturally interpreted as explicit performatives, and explain the evidence which supports your conclusion.

    1. I acknowledge you as my legal heir.

    2. Smith acknowledges you as his legal heir.

    3. I request the court to reconsider my petition.

    4. I’m promising Mabel to take her to a movie next week.

    5. I promised Mabel to take her to a movie next week.

    6. I expect that you will arrive on time from now on.

    7. You are advised that anything you say may be used as evidence against you.

    B. Indirect speech acts (1). For each of the following indirect speech acts, identify both the literal and primary act.

    1. [young woman to man who has just proposed to her]
    I hope that we can always remain friends.

    2. [housewife to next-door neighbor]
    Can you spare a cup of sugar?

    3. [flight attendant to passenger who is standing in the aisle]
    The captain has turned on the “fasten seatbelt” sign.

    4. [host to friend who has just arrived for a visit]
    How would you like a cup of coffee?

    5. [office manager to colleague who has invited him to go out for lunch]
    Look at that pile of papers in my inbox!

    6. [addressing neighbor who has a broken arm]
    I will mow your lawn for you this month.

    C. Indirect speech acts (2). Based on felicity conditions for requests, and using your own examples, try to form one indirect request for each of the following strategies.

    1. by querying the preparatory condition of the direct request

    2. by stating the preparatory condition of the direct request;

    3. by querying the propositional content of the direct request;

    4. by stating the sincerity condition of the direct request.


    a Sections A-C are modeled after Saeed (2009: 251–253).


    This page titled 10.5: Conclusion is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Paul Kroeger (Language Library Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.