“How to do things with words” – J. L. Austin

Austin, J. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford University Press: London, pp.1-38 & 83-131

Lecture I

“Not all true or false statements are descriptions, and for this reason I prefer to use the word “Constative” (does not denote action)

Performative utterance, performative sentence or “performative”: it indicates that the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action.


  • “I do (sc. take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife)” – as uttered in the course of the marriage ceremony.
  • “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” – as uttered when smashing the bottle against the stem.
  • “I bet you six pence it will rain tomorrow.”

To utter such sentences is not to describe […] to utter it is to do it.

“It is always necessary that the circumstances in which the words are uttered should be in some way, or ways, appropriate, and it is very commonly necessary that either the speaker himself or other persons should also perform certain other actions, whether “physical” or “mental” actions or even acts of uttering further words.”

Lecture II

Infelicities: if a performative utterance does not occur within certain necessary conditions, it is an “infelicitous performative”, or “unhappy”. These conditions are such:

  • (A. I) There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, that procedure to include the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances, and further,
  • (A. 2) the particular persons and circumstances ia a given case must be appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked.
  • (B. 1) The procedure must be executed by all participants both correctly and
  • (B. 2) completely.
  • (C. I) Where, as often, the procedure is designed for use by persons having certain thoughts or feelings, or for the inauguration of certain consequential conduct on the part of any participant, then a person participating in and so invoking the procedure must in fact have those thoughts or feelings, and the participants must intend so to conduct themselves, and further
  • (C. 2) must actually so conduct themselves subsequently.

Austin only considers utterances that occur in “ordinary life”, for he argues every performative utterance will be infelicitous if spoken in fictional situations, such as theatre. In such cases, the parasitic use of language would fall under the doctrine of etiolations of language.

Lecture III

Different infelicities can be combined or overlap.

Lecture IV

Lecture VIII

Speech Acts

Phonetic act – merely the act of uttering certain noises

Phatic act – the uttering of certain vocables or words, i.e. noises of certain types, belonging to and as belonging to, a certain vocabulary, conforming to and as conforming to a certain grammar.

Rhetic act – the performance of an act of using those vocables with a certain more-or-less definite sense of reference.

  • ‘He said “The cat is on the mat”‘ ——> phatic act
  • “He said the cat was on the mat” ——> rhetic act – “indirect speech”

Illocutionary act – the performance of an act in saying something

Locutionary act – the performance of an act of saying something

Lecture IX

Three different senses or dimensions of the “use of a sentence” or of “the use of language”.

Locutionary act: uttering a certain sentence with a certain sense and reference, which again is roughly equivalent to “meaning” in the traditional sense.

Illocutionary act: utterances that have a certain (conventional) force, such as informing, ordering, warning, etc.

Perlocutionary act: what we bring about or achieve by saying something, such as convincing, persuading, surprising, misleading.

“The uttering of noises may be a consequence (physical) of the movement of the vocal organs, the breath, &c.: but the uttering of a word is not a consequence of the uttering of a noise, whether physical or otherwise. Nor is the uttering of words with a certain meaning a consequence of uttering the words, whether physical or otherwise.”

“Unless a certain effect is achieved, the illocutionary act will not have been happily, successfully performed. This is to be distinguished from saying that the illocutionary act is the achieving of a certain effect. […] An effect must be achieved on the audience if the illocutionary act is to be carried out. “

“It is characteristic of perlocutionary acts that the response achieved, or the sequel, can be achieved additionally or entirelly by non-locutionary means: thus intimidation may be achieved by waving a stick or pointing a gun. Even in the cases of convincing, persuading, getting to obey and getting to believe, we may achieve the response non-verbally.”

We can achieve perlocutionary acts by entirely non-conventional means, such as: “I may persuade someone by gently swinging a big stick or gently mentioning that his aging parents are still in the Third Reich.” There cannot be an illocutionary act unless the means employed are conventional, and so the means for achieving its ends non-verbally must be conventional.