What is the study of language usage types [a question, an answer, a criticism, a complaint an elaboration, etc]?

I've heard ontology and typology used interchangeably but not sure either is correct - at best both seem to be metaphors is there a widely accepted academic answer?


Neither 'ontology' nor 'typology' are correct. 'Ontology' is a sub-discipline of philosophy and 'typology' is a linguistic discipline concerned with types of languages (not language use).

Nor is 'conversation analysis' the right answer. Conversation analysis - as the name suggests - is concerned with the analysis of conversation. As such, it is concerned with only a subset of spoken language usage. It has made an enormous contribution but does not deal with language as a whole (it also was not initiated by Austin who only has a tangential connection to it - but rather Garfinkel, Sacks and Goffman - the first outlines appeared about the same time as Austin's work).

The closest you get to a typology of language usage that covers all the things you list would be stylistics (building on the traditional discipline of rhetoric). However, the shortcoming of stylistics is its focus on written language and non-spontaneous speech. So between it and conversation analysis, you will find a good coverage of the issues. Stylistics is also tainted by its frequent normative / prescriptive focus.

When it comes to a typology of broader types of language usage, corpus linguistics has made an important contribution through its efforts to sample and represent language across all modalities.

However, it must be admitted that there is no subdiscipline of linguistics whose aim is pure typology of language usage. (Even the new 'usage-based' linguistics is not concerned with that.) Therefore most approaches to language use some sort of ad-hoc typology (often drawing on concepts from rhetoric or stylistics without deeper consideration of their foundations).


Since some of those types make sense only in relation to other parts of a conversation, conversational analysis is a term used for their study. This area of linguistics was initiated by the philosopher J. L. Austin's How to do things with words, and he proposed that speech utterances are generally used to perform acts (e.g., the asking of a question, a naming using "dub", a command or request), so the area is also known as performative analysis.

  • Ah! I've read Austin's Sense and Sensibilia but didn't realize he had input on this question. Excellent find. I'll check the work you mentioned to investigate further.
    – AshBrad
    Oct 14 '15 at 19:47
  • See my answer below. Austin's work was only indirectly related to CA. His influence comes later through work on speech acts and intentionality. Oct 15 '15 at 6:01
  • How to Do Things with Words has just arrived in the mail! Excited to crack it open! Thanks again @GregLee
    – AshBrad
    Nov 3 '15 at 17:19

Questions, answers, criticisms, complaints and elaborations, as coherent sequences of sentences, propositions, speech, or turns-at-talk, as well as linguistic phenomena "beyond the sentence boundary" are studied in Discourse Analysis and Rhetorical Structure Theory.

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