The Difference between Direct and Indirect Speech Acts. When Are Speech Acts Successful?

by Sebastian P. (Author)

Term Paper 2016 17 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents


1. Introduction

2. Definitions
2.1 Speech Act Theory
2.1.1 Locution
2.1.2 Illocution
2.1.3 Perlocution
2.2 Speech Acts
2.2.1 Direct Speech Act
2.2.2 Indirect Speech Act

3. Felicity Conditions

4. Cooperative Principle and Conversational Implicature
4.1 Conventional Implicature
4.2 Conversational Implicature

5. Inference Theory

6. Ambiguity of Indirect Speech Acts & Hearer Uptake
6.1 Ambiguity
6.2 Hearer Uptake

7 Analysis of Examples
7.1 Direct Speech Acts
7.1.1 “The Walking Dead”
7.1.2 Other examples
7.2 indirect speech acts
7.2.1 “The Walking Dead”
7.2.2 “The Big Bang Theory”

8 Conclusion

9 References


This term paper will deal with speech act theory, especially with the success of speech acts depending on certain conditions. Due to the usage of direct and indirect speech acts in everyday conversations it will be analysed which conditions have to be fulfilled to have a successful speech act. The following theories will be used to answer the research question whether the same conditions have to be fulfilled for direct and indirect speech acts to be successful:

1) Theory of Felicity Conditions by John Searle
2) Cooperative Principle by Paul Herbert Grice
3) Inference Theory by Gordon and Lakoff

The hypothesis is that indirect speech acts are different than direct speech acts due to the demanded hearer uptake and the possible ambiguity. After giving definitions of important linguistic terms and theories, the success of utterances and conversations in general will be described by the help of the Cooperative Principle by Grice. Then different examples of Direct and Indirect Speech Acts will be analysed that will show the difference between the two forms. Some of the used examples are made up and some are dialogues taken from the TV-series “The Big Bang Theory” as well as “The Walking Dead”. To explain how one can interpret the implicature in an utterance, the inference theory by Gordon and Lakoff will be taken into account. In the end it is made clear that the success of Indirect Speech Acts depends on the context in which the utterance is made and also on other external conditions which the speaker cannot control himself as the speaker often requests a hearer uptake.

Different texts by Austin, Thomas, Levinson, Renkema, Cruse and Yule will be studied to get an answer to the research question. Special focus will be put on the Indirect Speech Acts as they can be ambiguous and ask for a hearer uptake to be successful.

1. Introduction

Language is an important part of people’s everyday life as it is the tool to communicate between each other. Language thereby is used to transmit ideas, feelings and thoughts. Language can create connections between people speaking the same language but also distance between people speaking a different language, wherefore language has a social factor.

In specific situations people use language to express their feelings, to give information or to make other people do something and it is therefore important for the speaker to be understood correctly by the hearer. With the statement that “people use language to perform actions”, John Austin presented language as a form of acting. By making an utterance, the speaker expects that his intention will be recognized by the hearer. The circumstances surrounding the utterances help the hearer to identify the speaker’s intention.

This term paper deals with the theory of speech acts and the success of direct and indirect speech acts. The different conditions that have to be fulfilled to have a successful speech act will be discussed by looking at different examples. In the beginning crucial terms will be defined to understand the theory behind speech acts. Furthermore, the felicity conditions by Searle will be taken into account to analyse under which conditions speech acts are successful. After that the inference theory by Gordon and Lakoff will be used to explain how the implicature behind an utterance can be interpreted. In the end of this term paper different examples will be analysed to make clear that there is a difference between direct and indirect speech acts which exists due to ambiguity and hearer uptake.

2. Definitions

2.1 Speech Act Theory

To understand how speech acts work it is necessary to look at the components an utterance consists of - namely locution, illocution and perlocution.

2.1.1 Locution

The locution is the physical act of speaking. That means that the speaker composes a sentences in a specific context. The locution thereby is the grammatical structure of the utterance.

The following examples show the different grammatical forms that an utterance can have:

(1) Declarative: “You are generous.”
(2) Closed- interrogative: “Are you generous?”
(3) Open- interrogative: “Who is generous?”
(4) Imperative: “Be generous!”
(5) Exclamative: “How generous you are!”

(Huddles and Pullum 2002, 853)

2.1.2 Illocution

When making an utterance the speaker always has an intention behind it. The speaker makes an utterance to make either a statement about the world, to apologize or to explain something. This intended meaning behind the utterance is called illocutionary force and is internal to the locutionary act. The same locution can have different possible meanings depending on the context.

By looking at the example “It is cold in here.” the declarative can be stated either to make a statement about the current temperature but also to make the hearer do an action such as closing the window. This makes it obvious that in conversation it is not always clear what the intended meaning behind an utterance is. That shows that the same utterance can be ambiguous and can only be understood by looking at the context in which it is uttered.

2.1.3 Perlocution

The Perlocution is the intended or unintended effect that the utterance can have on the hearer and is external to the locutionary act as the speaker cannot control the effect the utterance will have on the hearer. Looking at the example of “There is a good movie tonight.” the perlocution can be that the hearer understands the declarative as an information and answers “Thank you.” or the utterance is understood as an excuse and “Never mind.” is answered. (Renkema 2004, 14)

2.2 Speech Acts

As the example “It is cold in here” has shown, utterances can be used to make other people do something. The speaker can chose to make his intended meaning explicit or to state it indirectly.

2.2.1 Direct Speech Act

An utterance is seen as a direct speech act when there is a direct relationship between the structure and the communicative function of the utterance. The following examples show that the form correspondences with the function:

(6) A declarative is used to make a statement: “You wear a seat belt.”

(7) An interrogative is used to ask a question: “Do you wear a seat belt?”

(8) An imperative is used to make a command: “Wear a seat belt!”

(Yule (1996, 55)

Direct speech acts therefore explicitly illustrate the intended meaning the speaker has behind making that utterance.

2.2.2 Indirect Speech Act

Searle stated that an indirect speech is one that is “performed by means of another” (Searle quoted in Thomas, 1995, p.93). That means that there is an indirect relationship between the form and the function of the utterance. The following examples show that the form does not correspondence with the function:

(9) An interrogative is used to make a request: “Could you pass the salt?”

(10) A declarative is used to make a request: “You’re standing in front of the TV.”

(Yule 1996, 56)

The speaker does not explicitly state the intended meaning behind the utterance. It is the hearer’s task to analyse the utterance to understand its meaning.

3. Felicity Conditions

According to Searle, general conditions have to be fulfilled to have a successful communication. The participants have to understand the language that is being used and that they are non-playacting. Besides these general condition Searle further divides felicity conditions into four classes: propositional content conditions, preparatory conditions, sincerity conditions and essential conditions. (Renkema 1993, 23)

Propositional content condition requires that the locution must exhibit conventionally acceptable words for erecting the particular speech act. Preparatory condition requires that specific requirements are existing such as that the utterance is made by a person that has the authority to do the action and that the utterance is stated in appropriate circumstances with appropriate actions. If that condition is not met the act has not been carried out. The sincerity condition requires that the person performing the act must have appropriate beliefs or feelings to do the action. If that condition is not fulfilled there is an abuse. The essential condition requires that the speaker commits himself to the speech act and takes upon himself the responsibility of carrying out the act. (Renkema 1993, 23)

In the following section the felicity conditions will be further explained by using the example of “to warn”. The propositional content condition is that it must be a future event. The preparatory precondition requires that the speaker believes the event will occur and be disadvantageous to the hearer and the speaker believes that it is not obvious to the hearer that the event will occur. The sincerity condition requires that the speaker truly believes that the event will be disadvantageous to the hearer. The essential condition requires that the speaker wants to inform the hearer about an event that will be disadvantageous to the hearer.

4. Cooperative Principle and Conversational Implicature

"Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged." (Grice in Cruse 2004, 367) With this quote Grice made clear that a successful conversation works in line with certain conditions to which the participants of a conversation should confine themselves. Utterances always entail an implicature, the meaning behind the utterance.

4.1 Conventional Implicature

The conventional implicature is the linguistic meaning of an utterance which is attached to the linguistic structure of the utterance. (Levinson 2000, 97) That means that there is a one to one correspondence between the locution and the illocutionary force of the utterance because conventional implicatures do not change depending on the context surrounding the utterance. Direct speech acts entail a conventional implicature as they explicitly state the illocutionary force behind the utterance.



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Technical University of Braunschweig
Speech acts direct speech acts indirect speech acts speech act theory success of speech acts felicity conditions cooperative principle inference theory the walking dead the big bang theory ambiguity hearer uptake successful speech acts searle griffe gordon and layoff


  • Sebastian P. (Author)



Title: The Difference between Direct and Indirect Speech Acts. When Are Speech Acts Successful?