The Boundary between Illocution and Perlocution by John Austin

John Langshaw Austin (1911—1960), one of the British most influential philosophers of all time, delivered his legendary speech published in 1962 as “How to Do Things with Words” in the “William James Lectures” at Harvard, 1955. In the lectures, Austin introduced three sets of concepts, which have been widely adopted by linguists, critics and rhetoricians of all kind. Austin scrutinized the force, effects and meaning of utterances in human speech in his lectures. The philosopher concluded that a speech act or a series of human utterances by a speaker who deliberately aims to express a “particular meaning” with a “particular force” to generate a “particular effect;” may be analyzed into two or some three distinct acts (Austin and Urmson 102). Austin termed the first act, which coveys meaning “the locutionary act,” the second one that carries the force “the illocutionary act,” and the third act, which is the effect of the first two acts “the perlocutionary act” (Jeong and Potts 12). This essay is mainly interested in how Austin marks the boundary between illocution and perlocution and whether the philosopher is correct in the way he distinguishes the two acts.

It seems that the primary theme in Austin’s “How to Do Things with Words” was to replace the initial distinction between “performatives” and “constatives,” replacing them with a universal philosophy of speech acts. The novel distinction, “special theory” was to provide the differences between utterances, which is the descriptions or statements and utterances which display acts such as warnings, apologies, bets, and promises (Jeong and Potts 21), that is the differences between utterances that express statement (saying) and those that express actions (doing) (Austin and Urmson 112).  In “How to Do Things with Words,” Austin explains that an attempt to make a distinction along these lines proves to be challenging or, in other words, collapses. A critic can be tempted to argue that while “constatives” can be presented as either true or false, “performatives” cannot take that root but instead can be presented as felicitous or infelicitous. However, this depends on whether the acts are performed completely, correctly and sincerely in agreement with some sets of conventions (Jeong and Potts 12).

            However, Austin’s careful examinations show that some performatives such as warnings are assessable as “true or false.” Simultaneously, some constatives such as utterance can be evaluated based on the felicitous or infelicitous aspect. For instance, “David’s wife is asleep” is an infelicitous statement when David has no wife. In this case, the deduction becomes apparent: giving a description or making a statement is similar to giving a warning or making a promise. What was initially meant to be performatives, a special case of utterance consumes the overall case of constatives, which remains to be considered only as “particular forms of speech act among others” (Jeong and Potts 16). So far, so good. However, the introduction of the distinction between locutionary and illocutionary acts seems to have substituted the general theory, what was believed to be attained by the “performative” and “constative” distinction in the special theory (Cohen 474).


            Nevertheless, concerns have been raised in how Austin distinguished these two acts: illocutions from perlocutions or locutions in his remarks concerning speech acts. The concerns raised by critics contradict Austin’s sense that the differences between illocution and perlocution seem to generate problems. Linguists consider differences as a new development since Austin’s topic of perlocution appears on the whole extraneous to fundamental questions in the theory of language (Cohen 473). The differences between perlocutions and illiocutions are drawn from their correlation to locution. For instance, the two excerpts below illustrates Austin’s preliminary characterization of illocution and perlocution, where the locution is the act of saying something.

To determine what illocutionary act is so performed, we must determine in what way we are using the locution: asking or answering a question, giving some information or an assurance or a warning, and the numerous like” (Austin and Urmson 98). And Austin’s introduction of the idea of a perlocution is that

 “There is yet a further sense in which to perform a perlocutionary act, and therein an illocutionary act may also be to perform an act of another kind. Saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience or the speaker, or other persons, and it may be done with purpose, design for producing them. We may say thinking that the speaker has performed an act in the nomenclature of which reference is made or obligatory or even not at all to perform the locutionary or illocutionary act” (Austin and Urmson 101). 

The idea championed by Austin here is that the “illocution is an act done in saying something” while a “perlocution is an act done by saying something” (Cohen 494). The difference is in the “in” and “by” distinction. In other words, when the speaker says, for example, “open the window,” he conveys the notion that an individual is to open the window and accomplish a locutionary act. In this case, the speaker expresses the force of requesting, performing illocutionary act; the chances are that he may convince and perform a perlocutionary act. According to Austin, the relationship between illocution and its locution is based on a conventional act, while a perlocution is not built on convention, and therefore has to be related to locution differently. Austin presented this kind of distinction repeatedly in several of his passages (Cohen 493). However, one obvious challenge with this Austin’s formula is understanding what the author meant by “convention” and finding some sense of “convection” that allows one to conclude that illocutions are conventional while perlocution is not.  

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            The distinction between “perlocutionary” and “illocutionary” acts as originally presented connotes the difference between pronouncing a sentence with a particular meaning “in one sense of meaning.” What Austin termed as “sense and reference” or the “locutionary act.” For instance, a single speaker uttering a sentence such as “I am going to do it” can generate different kinds of force such as a threat, promise, warning, prediction, or a statement of intention and making others despite the sentence not being ambiguous. In the speaker’s mind, this sentence only has one literal meaning. As such, Austin’s new distinction will only assign one sense to the sentence. Simultaneously, the sentence’s different utterances can only have a similar reference (Jeong and Potts 18). The different utterances or expressions of the sentence with similar literal meaning provided that sameness of reference can only generate one “locutionary” act according to Austin’s new distinction. In other words, there can be varying “locutionary” token resulting from one “locutionary” type. On the one hand, a similar utterance with the same sense and reference can generate several “illocutionary” acts. They can produce diverse “illocutionary” forces such as the force of promise, prediction, threat, promise, and so forth. The utterance which generated different tokens but the same “locutionary” form could produce tokens of varying “illocutionary” categories based on Austin’s new distinction (Jeong and Potts 20).

            Another challenge sets in from this kind of conception. Austin’s distinction of “perlocutionary” and “illocutionary” acts cannot be completely general from the analogy described above. Separating these two mutually exclusive categories of acts is a problem since the meaning of some sentences in Austin’s sense defines at least one “illocutionary” dynamism of the utterance of the statement/sentence. Therefore, the statement, “I am going to do it,” can fit several “illocutionary” acts. Uttering the sentence in another form, such as “I hereby promise that I am going to do it,” produces another different meaning altogether. Its literal utterance of the sentence must be a promise (Kravchenko, Nataliia 129). The utterance may denote “illocutionary” acts on some occasions, but it has to promise an “illocutionary” act of a particular form. The meaning of a statement dictates an “illocutionary” force of its expressions so that expressing the sentence with a similar literal meaning generates only that specific force. Because the act is described as a favorably executed “locutionary” act and involved a specific meaning of the sentence, it is already a depiction of the “illocutionary” act as a certain “illocutionary” act is determined by that specific meaning (Austin and Urmson 109).

            The two scenarios are the same act. However, Austin tries to convince the readers that uttering a sentence or making a statement with a particular meaning denotes performing a particular “locutionary” act. On the one hand, articulating a sentence with a specific force signifies performing a particular “illocutionary” act. Nevertheless, where a special force constitutes part of the statement meaning, and the meaning of the sentence exclusively defines a certain force, the two acts are the same but have two different labels. Austin, however, argues that each act is a construct from the overall speech act. However, critics argue that it is impossible for a large class of cases to abstract the “locutionary” act without attaching the “illocutionary” act to it. Researchers argue that abstracting the meaning of a statement/utterance in some way abstracts an “illocutionary” force wherever the force forms part of that meaning (Jeong and Potts 22).

In summation, this essay explores Austin’s distinction of illocution and perlocution and whether the philosopher is correct in the way he distinguishes the two acts. The differences between perlocutions and illiocutions are drawn from their association with locution. Austin’s “How to Do Things with Words” theory replaced the original distinction between “performatives” and “constatives” with illocution and perlocution acts. The class of “illocutionary” acts in several sentences will likely contain elements of the category of “locutionary” acts. The understanding of Austin’s meaning of “convention” and finding some sense of “convection” that allows one to conclude that illocutions are conventional while perlocution is not had also been used to challenge the philosopher’s distinction of the two acts, leading us to conclude Austin’s distinction was not right. The philosopher could have retained the original general theory that was believed to be attained by the “performative” and “constative” distinction in the special theory.

Works Cited

Austin, John Langshaw. “How to Do Things with Words the William James Lectures Delivered at Harvard University in 1955.” (1965).

Cohen, Ted. “Illocutions and perlocutions.” Foundations of Language 9.4 (1973): 492-503.

Jeong, Sunwoo, and Christopher Potts. “Intonational sentence-type conventions for perlocutionary effects: An experimental investigation.” Semantics and Linguistic Theory. Vol. 26. 2016.

Kravchenko, Nataliia. “Illocution of direct speech acts via conventional implicature and semantic presupposition.” Lege Artis 2.1 (2017): 128-168.