Linguistic Anthropology: On Locutionary & Illocutionary Acts, A Clarification

First off, this took quite a bit of study of Austin’s (1962) How to Do Things With Words, and in particular Lecture VIII and VIX (pp. 94-119). This took some time unpacking only to be stunned by a revelation that inflection and in reading allowed Austin’s words to readily be understood. Austin’s outlines of valences in examples helped tremendously (pp. 101-102).


On the question of what illocutionary acts are, before operationalizing illocutionary, it is important to understand that Austin’s illocutionary act is parallel to locution. Further helpful is locution’s etymology in the 15thcentury is cited as a “style of speech”, from the Proto-Indo European root *tolkw- which means “to speak” (Harper, 2022). This is illuminating in that when experimenting with applying styles of speaking to Austin’s own writing, it becomes apparent that a simple definition of illocutionary act is insufficient, for it truly is the concept that is more valuable to communicate rather than mere description, though an effort to communicate conceptually seems greater. To go straight at it, the locutionary act of stating “it truly is the concept that is more valuable to communicate than mere description”, is inclusive of an illocutionary act which would state “trust me, concepts are more valuable than description”. To take this further, a perlocutionary act1 of the same would be “the reader was stopped and reminded to read conceptually rather than descriptively” (i.e., “by writing that it is the concept that is more valuable to communicate… the writer was… reminding the reader to reciprocate by reading conceptually…”). 

Austin mentions, “to perform a locutionary act is in general, we may say, also and eo ipso to perform an illocutionary act…,” (Austin, 1962, p. 98; italics preserved2) which conveys an inseparability of locutionary act with illocutionary act—these are not separate acts but act simultaneously [in the same play of an “utterance’s” doing]. This is further evidenced in, of locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary, “three, if not more, different senses or dimensions of the ‘use of a sentence’ or of ‘the use of language’, (and of course there are others also)” (pp. 108-109; parenthesis preserved); senses and dimensions of the use of a sentence implies a that perhaps the locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary are as implicit frames. While there are possibly more accessible ways to communicate this in post-modernity, an argument as to the interchangeability of “act” as grounded by “a fixed physical thing that we do, as distinguished from conventions and as distinguished from consequences…” as constrained by acceptance rather than compliance (p. 106) is best left in a memo library, yet it is entirely expedient in unpacking Austin. That said, with this information now covered, it is possible to move to an operational definition of illocutionary act within which a not-illocutionary filter may expediently collapse neurological wave states to arrive at a pragmatic example.

An Operational Definition of Illocutionary Act

To increase accessibility, it is now possible, after literature review, to operationalize illocutionary in standalone from Austin’s theory. Austin’s illocutionary acts are a dimension of language use (pp. 108-109) as measured by conformances to a local distribution of conventions (p. 105) mediating (e.g., inflection, force, etc.) language production in the conveyance of force (e.g., informing, ordering, warning, undertaking etc. [p. 108]).

Examples of Illocutionary Acts

A troublesome issue growing up was the difference in language use between the mother (R.H.) I had been born of, and the father (R.M.H.). R.H.’s convention of force in conveying a command (i.e., force) was to say something to the effect of “clean your room”, where R.M.H.’s version would be, “please, clean you room”. The difference in ethnographies of both parents played into this variation, however the illocutionary acts of both parents had meant “clean your room, now” in the language use of the community. This was a very confusing and ambiguous situation, yet it became apparent in the facial expressions of both parents if movement was not engaged in attending to cleaning at that very moment. “Please” was enjoined in R.M.H.’s familial frame with a conventional force of an order (i.e., exercitive)—cleared up after departing the household to the enlist in the U.S. Army).

Another example is a very common use of “make sure” which peppers business and common language, at least in the community of practice of tech and digital marketing. An example would be, “we need to make sure we make that meeting on time”. There’s an implied locution of a warning simultaneous with an order here through “making surety”. The illocutionary act could be “you are being ordered to be on time”. For completeness a perlocution could be “you are being persuaded to want to make it a surety to others that you will be on time”.

A final example would be in the locutionary act of uttering, “due to the weather class is cancelled”, which is essentially framing up an intention so summarizing judged as a matter of convention. This convention can be seen in a great variety of expressions prefixed with “due to… A [it has been determined to] B”, yet offers uncertainty as to those responsible for determining B. The illocutionary act of this same expression would be “class is cancelled because of the weather” even possibly suffixing “, it wasn’t our/my fault”. For completeness, as above, so below, the perlocutionary act would be the consequence of “abort the routine of preparing or expecting to come to class, it is cancelled”.


While the readings on locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts had been deeply satisfying, I wonder at a continual theme playing out in some linguistic anthropological writing. Is it possible that “running with examples” out of convenience in demonstrating a conventional force of “knowing the matter” perhaps obfuscates the principle of that which the examples model? In other words, in this literature review, is it possible that there is much more to these acts that Austin had seen? It seems now as if there are multiple valences to any singular speech act, as acts in a play running simultaneous, where matters of convention are employed in moderating and modulating utterances. This is altogether fascinating and warrants deeper investigation, because if this is the case that these acts are simultaneous, then it makes a matter of speech, far more worthy of investigating at a linguistic anthropological perspective along with neurological, psychological, and sociological perspectives. If this is the case, then it may be said that utterances concomitant with an ability to work simultaneously in different frames, which seems congruous to Jakobson’s (1960) model of the multifunctionality of language. Of course, these interpretations could be invalid, but the principle of Austin seems efficaciously communicated in three acts simultaneous in… How to Do Things with Words rather than of… How to Do Things with Words


1 Auston (1962) considers perlocution as a planned, intended, and purposed use of language having come about under an awareness language’s “effects” on attitudes, where the reference to this plan, intention, or purpose is “obliquely” or devoid of reference (p. 101). A locutionary act might be “that’s how you’re going to put the bowl in the dishwasher…”, which when read with a particular inflection reveals the perlocutionary act of “shame, stop, [remember the agreement on loading the bowls in the dishwasher]” (demonstrating the consequence [p. 102]).

2 Austin (1962) literally plays with the reader in using “eo ispo” (p. 98; italics preserved), having a page prior foreshadowed “warning” about repeating “someone else’s remark or mumbl[ing] over some sentence, or we may read a Latin sentence without knowing the meaning of the words” (p. 97; MDL employed for readability)—Austin is an exemplar of parapraxical writing (i.e., writing demonstrating statistically significant density of parapraxis per unit of [to be defined] as compared toward population[s]).


Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford University Press.

Harper, D. (2022). Locution. Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved from

Jakobson, R. (1960). Linguistics and poetics. In T. A. Sebeok (Ed.), Style in language (pp. 350-377). MIT Press.