The Words, the Meaning, the Effect
As we communicate, there are 3 separate processes at play:
- what we say,
- what we mean when we say it, and
- what we accomplish by saying it
A rhetorician would call these 3 separate processes: 1) locution, 2) illocution, and 3) perlocution. In my courses we use the shorthand “Point X” to refer to the perlocutionary effect. This is where effective persuasive communication must begin.
Speech Act theory was laid out by the philosopher J. L. Austin in his small book “How to do things with Words”.
Words that Change the World
One difference between gods and men is that a god’s words directly change the world, whereas the words of men depend on action of others to cause the change. A god might say “let there be light”, and the sun appears. A man might say “can you turn on the light?” and another person hears, understands and reaches his hand out to the switch.
However, we do have occasions and rituals in which a man’s words do cause a change in the world. These occasions the speech is called “performative”. Consider the following statements:
1a) Conor says, “James and Sarah are married.”
1b) A judge says, “James and Sarah, I now pronounce you man and wife.”
2a) Conor says, “That ball was on the line!”
2b) The umpire says, “Point to Rafa Nadal. Game.”
The a) statements communicate information. These are non-performative utterances. The b) statements directly change the state of the world. The statements of the judge or the umpire are performative utterances.
Performative utterances are not limited to judges, umpires and gods. Consider:
3a) Conor says, “I would bet on New Zealand to beat England”
3b) Conor says, “I bet you €10 that New Zealand beat England today”
This third examples show the establishment of an verbal contract. Legal codes in many nations hold these verbal contracts as valid on a par with written contracts. Performative Speech acts include promising, ordering, greeting, warning, inviting and congratulating.
Types of Meaning
John Searle gives the following classification of illocutionary speech acts:
- assertives = speech acts that commit a speaker to the truth of the expressed proposition, e.g. reciting a creed
- directives = speech acts that are to cause the hearer to take a particular action, e.g. requests, commands and advice
- commissives = speech acts that commit a speaker to some future action, e.g. promises and oaths
- expressives = speech acts that express the speaker’s attitudes and emotions towards the proposition, e.g. congratulations, excuses and thanks
- declarations = speech acts that change the reality in accord with the proposition of the declaration, e.g. baptisms, pronouncing someone guilty or pronouncing someone husband and wife
Politicians often speak in a manner that treads a fine line between performative and non-performative speech. They make statements that sound like assertive promises, but if you listen exactly to the words, they avoid the full commitment. We hear the promise, but if later their statement is fact-checked, it can slide by as a non-performative.
This has led to a great distrust in any sort of vague speaking. If you mean to make a promise, it is important in today’s environment to state it in clear and non-ambiguous terms.
Remove “maybe”, “try” and “might” from your vocabulary. They turn a performative utterance into a vague, grey mush.
For your words to change the world, be concise and direct with your performative statements.
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