Performative Pragmatics

Teacher's Guide

Chapter 4
Types of Speech Act

Taxonomic Straitjackets

"Types of speech act": sounds like a good constative project, doesn't it? Reduce the complexity of speech acts to a nice stable taxonomy, typically with five categories—the number Austin came up with and his followers seem to feel duty-bound to squeeze everything into. A few speech-act taxonomists have split two categories in half, generating a total of seven; but even then they think of the split categories in terms of Austin's (or Searle's) five, so that their seven-class taxonomies tend to consist of three full classes and four half-classes.

I personally tend to prefer the wild proliferation of speech-act types, and feel a special fondness for the baroque taxonomy of Ballmer and Brennenstuhl, with 600-plus categories—even though their categories are taken out of a dictionary and thus feel a bit disembodied. Accordingly in the chapter I encourage a playful attitude toward the various taxonomies, and in class try to get students to tinker with them, twist the existing ones and invent their own.

Unfortunately, this almost never works. Almost invariably I find that my students want a single tidy five-class taxonomy that they can memorize and apply as blindly as possible. They find my exuberant antinomianism—what?—irresponsible. It is my responsibility as their teacher to teach them something they can use unequivocally. In response, I tend to steer them toward Zeno Vendler's seven-class taxonomy—and in fact decided to use that as a basis for further invention in the chapter (p. 00) and exercise 3.


1. There's no question: everyone who is trying to rescue Austin's performative for analytical purposes, whether their methodology is constative or performative, is doing so by reinstating the binary constative/performative distinction. So there is that analytical parallel or isomorphism between the two rescues.

a. One procedural difference between the constative and performative rescue of the performative is that the constative rescue is based on an objectivist claim: the performative utterance (as structurally distinct from the constative utterance) really exists and can and should be described objectively, which is to say, structurally. The performative rescue is based on a pragmatic claim: it's useful to think of the two as different. This makes the performative rescue a line in an ongoing drama, something the speaker wants to believe, and thus something that is unashamedly open to challenge by others.

b. A second difference is that the constative rescue of the performative attempts to eliminate the problems Austin found by eliminating performance: in Chomsky's distinction between competence and performance, which Katz invokes, performance is what people do with words, and since that causes the trouble in Austin's book (people use constatives to perform actions), these thinkers propose to ignore performance. This leaves them with a performative removed from the realm of performance: a non-performative performative, so to speak. From a performative point of view, this is a logical error: the performative is all about people performing actions with words; if you remove it from the realm of performance, you no longer have a performative at all. What you are rescuing is in effect a (slightly disguised) constative.

c. And this leads to the third and final important difference: the performative rescue of the performative sees it not as a type of utterance but as a way of thinking about utterances. The constative rescue of the performative rejects Austin's distinction on the same level of abstraction: Austin says that all utterances perform actions and thus can be thought of as performatives or speech acts; the constative rescuers say that (structurally) utterances perform different actions, and thus can still objectively be distinguished between constatives and performatives. They thus disagree with Austin on the nature of utterances. Performative rescuers agree with Austin that all utterances are performatives, but raise the distinction to a higher level: it's not that utterances are different, it's that ways of thinking about utterances are different. The key in this rescue is thus not the structure of the utterance but how people structure their world with utterances. A constative in this performative view is not an utterance with this or that structure; it is an attempt to make an utterance into an objective representation of reality, in order to "convey the same facts" as reality. Hence the claim in (b) that a non-performative performative is actually a disguised constative: if a constative is an attempt to make language conform objectively to reality, then all utterances are (or rather become, by the performative power of the constative approach) constatives, and the "performative" is only one type of constative. A performative is an attempt to use an utterance to transform reality, in order to make reality conform to the speaker's vision. Because the term refers to the approach and not the utterance type, naturally the approach tends to render all utterances performative: Austin's original problem. This makes the performative rescue of the performative congruent with Austin's original insight and the constative rescue a rejection of Austin.

2. We read people's verbal and nonverbal communication all the time, of course, and sometimes we are absolutely convinced that we are right and someone else (even including the person we're reading) is wrong. But our conviction doesn't make us right; it only means we're convinced. People who disagree with us probably feel just as strongly that they are right. A performative approach to the study of language insists on granting to every participant in a conversation this sense s/he has of being right—on granting, affirming, and basing analysis on each participant's limited dramatic perspective on the action.

The possibility that the mother is performing her son as annoying is a good one, though. This would allow us the mother's certainty without making us fall back on an objectivist argument (according to which the mother is simply "describing" the boy's annoying nature accurately). But note that here too the mother's power to create an annoying "performative identity" for her son depends on the other participants' dramatic response to her performative: her performative identity for the boy only "sticks" if they believe her.

3. In a constative or objectivist approach to speech acts, the primary goal is to recognize speech acts when you see them. The speech act is performed, and the classificational system you have memorized helps you to recognize it (correctly). It has a certain quality to begin with; with the help of somebody's (objectivist) taxonomy you spot that quality. For the performative pragmatician, however, the primary goal is to see speech in terms of speech acts—to perform speech as actions, to create an actional "performative identity" for speech. This requires that the speech-act theorist be active and creative, be prepared to invent new categories or new variations on old categories, in order to give speech the full complexity of the theorist's vision. In a constative approach, there is only one "way of seeing": the correct one, the objective one. In a performative approach, there are as many "ways of seeing" as there are seers, and everyone looking at a thing is encouraged to explore his or her own vision as complexly as possible. As the "Pedagogy" page made clear, the constative approach presupposes a pedagogy based on an objectivist regimen to which the student must submit; the performative approach presupposes a pedagogy in which the student is encouraged to generate his or her own regimen, and to keep changing it as his or her flexible creative response to perceived reality seems to demand.

4. We can't know what someone is really doing with words, but that doesn't stop us from guessing—which is to say, interpreting—and then acting on the basis of our guess or interpretation. Proceeding (responding to a situation) without absolute knowledge is pretty common in human behavior, in fact. We all do it all the time. And we all develop rough (sometimes unconscious) guidelines for doing so: when we have enough certainty to proceed; how cautiously to proceed with varying degrees of certainty, etc. This makes coming up with analytical categories for sorting through those varying degrees of certainty not only useful, but realistic: if people already do it, presumably they will be interested in learning to do it better, more effectively. By contrast, the kind of analytical "rigor" that requires 100% certainty that your knowledge of the situation is accurate and objective is unrealistic (when do humans ever have that kind of certainty?) and thus useless.

Or, perhaps, it is useful only if taken with a huge grain of salt. "Well, to know whether this morpheme is a noun or a verb I am supposed to know with 100% certainty how it is really and truly used in the language, and that's something I can't ever know, but if I back off on the 100% certainty and take a rough pragmatic guess at how it's probably mostly used, at least I can proceed with my analysis ..."


1. a/b/c. The easy answer to the radically divergent interpretations Deputy Chief Robinson and Al put on the incident is that Robinson is an idiot, and is just flat-out wrong. A slightly more complex version of this same answer is that we're supposed to despise him. His idiocy feeds the audience's presumed antiauthoritarianism and desire to root for the lone good guy, Bruce Willis all alone up in the tower, fighting the bad guys single-handedly. If Deputy Chief Robinson were more intelligent and more attuned to McClane's needs, there would be less drama, less tension: things would be easier for McClane, and he would be less of a hero. Slightly more complex still: as Hans Gruber says, the police proceed in these cases by a rule book that says "don't aggravate the terrorists, for fear they'll harm the hostages." In accordance with that rule book, Deputy Chief Robinson thinks McClane is endangering the hostages by aggravating the terrorists—killing them, stealing their detonators, etc. (Ellis, by the way, seems to be playing by this same rule book, even though he isn't a police administrator.) The expectations and internal pressures created in Robinson by this rule book drive him to interpret McClane's role in Ellis's death as negatively as possible: what McClane should have done, from Robinson's point of view, is hand over the detonators and save Ellis's (and maybe the other hostages') life. From the movie's point of view, though—enacted for us by McClane, Al, and Hans Gruber himself—giving Hans the detonators would not have saved anybody's life. He is planning to kill all the hostages to cover his escape. McClane's lone-wolf vigilanteeism is the only force that can (and does) stop him.

d. McClane evidently thinks (and we the audience are supposed to think) that Hans has Holly, and will be using her as leverage against McClane.

e. What Ellis is doing, what he is trying to get out of this, isn't entirely clear. Is he just trying to save his own skin? Probably not, though that interpretation is possible. More likely: he's trying to save the day, be a hero, by getting the terrorists what they want. He really thinks that if they get what they want the terrorists will leave and everybody will be okay. Ellis has an extremely exaggerated view of his own wonderfulness.

f. Language communities work very hard to build and maintain and "police" the regularities that make mutual understanding possible. From a performative point of view these regularities aren't "rules" or "structures," they are tentative and constantly shifting patterns that are more or less effectively regulated by the social group; but they are what constative linguists study under the rubrics of "rules" and "structures." The fact that it's possible for two people to agree on an interpretation is evidence of these regularities; the fact that interpretive agreement is never guaranteed and often fails is evidence that the regularities aren't rules or structures, but rough working "feels," shared by most speakers of a language, for how communication works.

g. In saying "Ellis, you shouldn't be doing this," McClane is trying desperately to signal to Ellis to get the hell out of the office while he's still alive, while not letting Hans figure out that this is what he's trying to say. In saying "Tell me about it" Ellis is pretending to bemoan the danger that he's pretending to be (and really is) in, in order to maximize his sense of self-importance and herohood and his false camaraderie with Hans (which he thinks he needs in order to cinch the deal).

h. Ellis's speech acts work on several levels at once. At one fairly superficial level, he's playing a role for McClane: pretending to be in danger, so McClane will give up the detonators. At a slightly deeper level, he's playing a role for Hans: pretending to pretend to be in danger, so McClane will give up the detonators and so Hans will see how cooperative and useful he's being. At a deeper level still, he's playing a role for himself, and maybe for an imaginary audience ("posterity," perhaps): risking his life to save the day, save the hostages. At the deepest level of all, so deep that he isn't aware of it himself, he's giving Hans the idea that killing him might put useful pressure on McClane.

2. It's possible that Sunny has taken Julie to be performing the indirect speech act of accusing her ex of cheating on her while they were still married. If she is "really" (indirectly) saying "he was cheating on me," then "You don't know that" is an appropriate response to the indirect speech act. If Julie is really just wondering, though, "You don't know that" is inappropriate. The fact that Julie doesn't get annoyed and say "I didn't say I knew it, I said I wondered" suggests that Sunny may have been right. On the other hand, "It makes you think, though," really only restates "Makes me wonder," which suggests that Julie might actually be only wondering and thinking. Then again, the apparently mindless repetition of the same idea despite Sunny's protest suggests at a deeper level that Julie might be clinging to her indirect accusation and to the pretense of not directly accusing him.

3. Here is one way those blanks might be filled in:

State informationExpositivesclaiming, informing, insisting, statingdenying, lying, misleading, misinforming
Commit speaker to actionCommissivesagreeing, promising, betting, volunteering, threateningdisagreeing, refusing, backing out of
React to behaviorBehabitivescondoling, supporting, encouraging, complimentingregretting, deploring, scolding, scorning, ridiculing, dismissing
Exercise authorityExercitivesordering, advising, permitting, requesting, requiring, suggesting, urging, warningquashing, rescinding, retracting, revoking, suspending, withdrawing, annulling, canceling, forbidding
someone answer
Interrogativesasking, requestingblackmailing, extorting
Pronounce judgmentVerdictivesranking, grading, defining, analyzingcondemning, impeaching, penalizing
Change someone else's statusOperativesmarrying, christening, ordaining

divorcing, excommunicating defrocking

More: Teacher's Guide index

General: Structure | Pedagogy | Dialogues

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