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6.11: Illocutionary meaning

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    • Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi
    • eCampusOntario

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    Illocutionary meaning

    ​ In Chapter 7, Section 7.11, we talked about the meaning of sentences in terms of their truth condition. This tells us what the sentence entails: it tells us what the sentence means on its own, regardless of context. So far in this chapter, we have also seen that when we combine the literal truth-conditional meaning of the sentence with the discourse context, other layers of linguistic meaning emerge, like implicatures. Implicatures rely on the fact that sentences don’t occur in isolation in natural language use: they’re a part of a larger discourse context.

    In this section, we will explore illocutionary meaning: sentential meaning in terms of what the speaker/signer means in making an utterance. The idea is that after we compositionally build up the literal meaning of a sentence, we do something with this sentence in a conversation. In other words, what’s the point of saying something in a conversation? Let’s take a look at what exactly you do with a sentence in discourse.

    What is illocutionary meaning?

    Illocutionary meaning again is the meaning of a sentence in terms of what the speaker/signer means in making an utterance. To understand what this means, let’s take a look at the conversation in (1).

    ​ (1) (Context: Aya and Bo are roommates, and are trying to decide what to make for dinner.)

    ​ Aya: Should we have spaghetti for dinner?

    ​ Bo: We have tomato sauce and ground beef in the fridge.

    ​ Aya: Yeah. Can we make pasta bolognese with those ingredients?

    ​ Bo: Yeah, I think so.

    ​ Aya: OK, cool. We’ll do spaghetti then.

    Let’s focus on Bo’s utterance, We have tomato sauce and ground beef in the fridge. The sense of this sentence is the lexical meaning of all the words it contains combined. But Bo is not saying this sentence in this conversation for the sake of expressing the sense of the sentence. He is saying this because he believes this sentence to be true, and he would like for the addressee, Aya, to agree with it. This layer of meaning is what we are referring to as illocutionary meaning, and what we mean by “what we mean in making an utterance.” In this case, Bo has made an assertion. In contrast, if you look at Aya’s first utterance in (1), she has posed a question: Should we have spaghetti for dinner?. Assertion vs. question is a way of classifying sentences based on their illocutionary meaning. There’s more that you can do in a conversation than just assert things and ask questions. For example, you might exclaim things in an exclamative (e.g., What a beautiful raccoon!) or you might give orders with an imperative (e.g., Look at the raccoon!). In this textbook, we will focus on just assertions and questions. In the rest of this chapter, we will ask the following question: what does it mean for someone to make an assertion vs. pose a question in discourse?

    Re: Language is performative

    In Chapter 2, we introduced the idea that language is performative, meaning that things happen and the world changes when you say or sign things. When someone says I name this ship the S.S. Anne, they christen the ship. Writing I bequeath my card collection to my child in a will gives rise to certain contractual rights about the future ownership of the card collection. As philosopher John Langshaw Austin wrote, “to say something is to do something” (emphasis his) (Austin 1975). Austin originally used the term “performatives” to refer to certain types of sentences, like ship christening, bequeathing in wills, and marriage vows. Under the original definition, performatives are utterances that are made for the purpose of doing something and giving rise to a conventional consequence (e.g., transfer of rights, legal union, etc.). The term usually refers to something that uses performative verbs like “I hereby name“, “I hereby bequeath“, “I now pronounce you”, etc.

    Anything that you linguistically express that serves the purpose of “doing something” is called a speech/sign act. Note that some linguists use the term speech act to refer to acts in all modalities of language. So when you say a performative like “I now pronounce you married,” that’s a speech act. You don’t always have to use performative verbs to do a speech/sign act, though. For example, if you simply ask the question “Did you break my bike?” in spoken English (instead of expressing it as a performative like “I hereby ask if you broke my bike”), it’s still a speech act: it’s an act of inviting the addressee to supply information. So performatives are just a special kind of speech/sign act.

    By making a speech/sign act, there are different actions that you make simultaneously: you make a locutionary act, an illocutionary act, and a perlocutionary act. Let’s take the sentence You’re manspreading, uttered by a woman to a man on a bus.

    The locutionary act of a speech/sign act is an expression of the locutionary meaning of the sentence, which is the literal meaning of the sentence. The locutionary meaning of You’re manspreading is something like ‘the addressee, presupposed to be male, is sitting with their legs wide apart.’

    The illocutionary act of a speech/sign act is an expression of the illocutionary meaning of the sentence, which is what you “do” in making an utterance. Typically, in making an assertion, what the speaker “does” is commit herself to the truth of the utterance (the performative version would be something like ‘I hereby publicly declare that I believe that you are manspreading’). In this particular case, she’s also likely “doing” something else too: making a request (for him to move his legs). Those are both illocutionary acts. Other than asserting and requesting, illocutionary acts can include: asking, resigning, promising, congratulating, and more.

    Finally, the perlocutionary act (or perlocutionary effect) of a speech/sign act is an expression of the perlocutionary meaning of the sentence, which is the actual effect of the utterance on the addressee. In this case, the perlocutionary effect of You’re manspreading might be that the addressee moves his legs to make more room for the speaker.

    In the rest of this chapter, we will focus on the illocutionary meaning of sentences, particularly that of assertions and questions. Note that there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between the form of a sentence and its illocutionary meaning. In one context, You got first place! might be an act of congratulating (e.g., adults are playing a video game), but in another context, it might be an act of scolding (e.g., an adult immaturely beat a bunch of children in a video game). In fact, even if you utter a performative like I hereby promise that I will buy you the game, it doesn’t really have the illocutionary meaning of a promise unless the utterer sincerely means it. Some types of illocutionary meaning are closely connected to certain word order, intonation, or performative verbs, though: for example, T-to-C movement in spoken English typically indicates that a question is being asked.

    Check your understanding

    Query \(\PageIndex{1}\)


    Austin, J. L. (1975). How to Do Things with Words. Oxford University Press.

    Cohen, T. (1973). Illocutions and perlocutions. Foundations of Language, 9(4), 492-503.

    Searle, J. R. (1975). A taxonomy of illocutionary acts, in K. Gunderson (ed.), Language, Mind and Knowledge, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 344–369.

    Searle, J. R. (1985). Expression and meaning: Studies in the theory of speech acts. Cambridge University Press.

    Searle, J. R., Searle, J. R. S., Vanderveken, D., & Willis, S. (1985). Foundations of Illocutionary Logic. CUP Archive.

    Vanderveken, D. (1990). Meaning and Speech Acts: Principles of Language Use (Vol. 1). Cambridge University Press.

    8.10: Thinking about illocutionary meaning compositionally

    One or more interactive elements has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view them online here:

    What we learned in Chapter 7 is that the meaning of a sentence is compositional. Let’s take the sentence Panks is a cat. If we think denotationally, this means that we combine the meaning of cat (the set of all cats) with the meaning of Panks (the individual Panks), which results in the meaning of the sentence (TRUE if and only if Panks is in the set of all cats). This kind of analysis might suffice if you are interested in the meaning of the sentence in isolation — that is, uttered on its own. A more realistic view of how language works, however, is that sentences don’t get produced in isolation; they are a part of a larger conversation. In fact, you typically don’t get to decide on your own if a sentence is true or not. This is why you have conversations: to consult others to see what is true about the world we are in, and what is false. We want to analyse sentential meaning as something more collaborative and discourse-based like this in this chapter. As introduced in the previous section, this largely concerns the illocutionary meaning of a sentence.

    Before we discuss the details of various types of illocutionary meaning, let’s make sure that we understand some terminology that might potentially be confusing. Consider the pair of sentences in (1)-(2).

    (1) Panks is a cat (assertion)

    (2) Is Panks a cat? (question)

    You likely have the intuition that (1) and (2) are two “versions” of the same thing: (1) is the declarative version of Panks being a cat, and (2) is the interrogative version of it. We can say that (1) and (2) are based on the same proposition: that an individual called Panks is among the set of cats (or, p∈C in set theory terms). A proposition is something that can be assigned a truth value. When a proposition is given a truth value (or truth condition), it is called a statement.

    To understand this better, let’s think about the meaning of (2), Is Panks a cat?. This is not a statement, because questions do not have truth values (You can’t say *It is true that is Panks a cat). However, the meaning of the question still involves the proposition that was introduced earlier: p∈C. In the meaning of a question, you are not saying that the proposition has a certain truth value. Instead, you are asking about the truth value of the proposition: is p∈C true, or is p∈C false?

    In order to understand how illocutionary meaning works, we will assume in this chapter that a TP is simply a proposition, like p∈C (we might also just write a proposition in bold, like Panks is a cat). This means that it doesn’t actually have a truth value yet.

    A proposition on its own has no illocutionary meaning; we have to add illocutionary meaning to it. To do this compositionally, we can posit a silent illocutionary force morpheme that carries illocutionary meaning. For example in English, we can assume that there is a silent ASSERT morpheme that resides in C (the head of the CP). The idea would be that this ASSERT morpheme adds illocutionary meaning to the proposition represented by its sister TP. This structure is shown in Figure 8.3 below.

    Tree diagram for [ASSERT [Panks is a cat]]
    Figure 8.3. A tree with an ASSERT morpheme in C (irrelevant nodes have been omitted).

    The role of the ASSERT morpheme would be to take a proposition and “do” something with it in the discourse context. For example, if you assert Panks is a cat, this means that ASSERT takes p∈C and says something along the lines of ‘I (the speaker/signer) believe that p∈C is true; do you (the addressee) believe this, too?‘. The underlined part is what we call the illocutionary meaning of a sentence (or illocutionary force): what is being “done” with the proposition in the discourse.

    Illocutionary force

    Sometimes, the term illocutionary force is used to refer to the utterer’s intended illocutionary meaning of a sentence. Sometimes this specification is necessary, because illocutionary acts are successful only if the addressee understands the illocutionary meaning properly. For example, for “You’re manspreading” to be a successful illocutionary act of requesting, then the addressee needs to understand it as so. If the addressee fails to see it as an act of requesting, then it’s not clear that this utterance actually has the “illocutionary meaning” of a request. We can say that it does have the illocutionary force of a request though, since that’s what the speaker’s intended illocutionary meaning was. The distinction between “illocutionary meaning” and “illocutionary force” is not super important in this textbook.

    Let’s look at questions now. A question would work in a similar way, just with a different illocutionary force morpheme. Let’s call this silent question force morpheme INTERR. Figure 8.4 is the structure we will assume for a question.

    Tree diagram for [INTERR [Panks is a cat]]
    Figure 8.4. A tree with an INTERR morpheme in C (irrelevant nodes have been omitted).

    As you can see, the question actually has the same TP as the assertion tree we saw before, and thus the same proposition it starts out with: p∈C. This time, the illocutionary morpheme INTERR (for interrogative) would combine with this proposition and give it interrogative illocutionary force. INTERR p∈C roughly means ‘Either p∈C is true or p∈C is false; which one do you think it is?‘. The underlined part is the illocutionary meaning contributed by INTERR.

    Some languages like Korean actually have overt (= unsilent) morphemes for ASSERT and INTERR. Consider (3) and (4).

    (3)   Korean (Brandner, 2004)  
        ku-ka seoul-e ka -ass -ta
        he-NOM Seoul-to go -PAST -INTERR
        ‘He went to Seoul’  
    (4)   Korean (Brandner, 2004)  
        ku-ka seoul-e ka -ass -nunya?
        he-NOM Seoul-to go -PAST -INTERR
        ‘Did he go to Seoul?’  

    In (3), -ta is the morpheme that marks the sentence as an assertion; a non-silent ASSERT. In (4), -nunya is the morpheme that marks it as a question; a non-silent INTERR. These illocutionary force morphemes appear in C in Korean as well. Linearly, it shows up at the end of the sentence because Korean is a head-final language — just like Japanese (recall Chapter 6, Section 6.3).

    With this kind of compositionality of illocutionary meaning in mind, we will begin to address the question of what exactly these ASSERT and INTERR morphemes mean.

    Check your understanding

    Query \(\PageIndex{1}\)


    Brandner, E. (2004). Head-movement in minimalism, and V2 as FORCE-marking. The Syntax and Semantics of the Left Periphery, 97-13

    Farkas, D. F., & Bruce, K. B. (2010). On reacting to assertions and polar questions. Journal of semantics, 27(1), 81-118.

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    Hamblin, C. L. (1973). Questions in Montague English. Foundations of Language, 10(1). 41–53.

    Heim, I. (1982). The semantics of definite and indefinite noun phrases. University of Massachusetts, Amherst dissertation.

    Heim, I. (2002). File change semantics and the familiarity theory of definiteness. Formal Semantics: The Essential Readings, 223-248.

    Kamp, H. (1981). A theory of truth and semantic representation. Truth, Interpretation and Information, 1–41.

    Kamp, H., Genabith, J. V., & Reyle, U. (2011). Discourse Representation Theory. In Handbook of Philosophical Logic (pp. 125-394). Springer, Dordrecht.

    Roberts, C. (2012). Information structure: Towards an integrated formal theory of pragmatics. Semantics and Pragmatics, 5, 6-1.

    Stalnaker, R. C. (1978). Assertion. In Pragmatics (pp. 315-332). Brill.

    Taniguchi, A. (2017). The formal pragmatics of non-at-issue intensification in English and Japanese. Michigan State University dissertation.

    This page titled 6.11: Illocutionary meaning is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi (eCampusOntario) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.