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date: 21 July 2018

Summary and Keywords

Speech acts are acts that can, but need not, be carried out by saying and meaning that one is doing so. Many view speech acts as the central units of communication, with phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic properties of an utterance serving as ways of identifying whether the speaker is making a promise, a prediction, a statement, or a threat. Some speech acts are momentous, since an appropriate authority can, for instance, declare war or sentence a defendant to prison, by saying that he or she is doing so. Speech acts are typically analyzed into two distinct components: a content dimension (corresponding to what is being said), and a force dimension (corresponding to how what is being said is being expressed). The grammatical mood of the sentence used in a speech act signals, but does not uniquely determine, the force of the speech act being performed. A special type of speech act is the performative, which makes explicit the force of the utterance. Although it has been famously claimed that performatives such as “I promise to be there on time” are neither true nor false, current scholarly consensus rejects this view. The study of so-called infelicities concerns the ways in which speech acts might either be defective (say by being insincere) or fail completely.

Recent theorizing about speech acts tends to fall either into conventionalist or intentionalist traditions: the former sees speech acts as analogous to moves in a game, with such acts being governed by rules of the form “doing A counts as doing B”; the latter eschews game-like rules and instead sees speech acts as governed by communicative intentions only. Debate also arises over the extent to which speakers can perform one speech act indirectly by performing another. Skeptics about the frequency of such events contend that many alleged indirect speech acts should be seen instead as expressions of attitudes. New developments in speech act theory also situate them in larger conversational frameworks, such as inquiries, debates, or deliberations made in the course of planning. In addition, recent scholarship has identified a type of oppression against under-represented groups as occurring through “silencing”: a speaker attempts to use a speech act to protect her autonomy, but the putative act fails due to her unjust milieu.

Keywords: illocution, mood, performative, illocutionary force, communicative intentions, perlocution, felicity condition, speaker meaning, presupposition, indirect speech act, illocutionary silencing

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