I'm having a hard time determining when an utterance passes the thereby-test and thus can be considered to be an explicit performative.

An utterance in the first-person singular indicative noncontinuous present is an explicit performative if and only if it yields a true statement when plugged into the following pattern: In saying “I ____” in appropriate circumstances, I thereby ____.

For example, if an umpire shouts, “You’re out!” then the batter is out. Therefore, given the right circumstances, this is an explicit performative.

The book "Understanding Arguments, An Introduction to Informal Logic" states that "I agree with you." is not an explicit performative since "this describes one’s thoughts or beliefs, so, unlike a performative, it can be false". However, it states that "I apologize for being late." is an explicit performative.

Couldn't one be lying when apologizing? Where does the distinction lie?

Additionally, how far does the notion of 'appropriate circumstances' stretch? I could argue that when a person truly agrees, the statement becomes an explicit performative.

3 Answers 3


What are performative verbs and declarations?

There is much confusion about what performatives and declarations are and how they should be classified. The following definition by Searle seems the most useful and exact one:

"... an utterance is a declaration if the successful performance of the speech act is sufficient to bring about the fit between words and world, to make the propositional content true."

— John R. Searle, 'How Performatives Work' in: Linguistics and Philosophy 12 (5) pp. 535–558 (1989), 547.

This means that a declaration must describe a situation, or it couldn't have a truth value; and its being uttered must affect its truth value. (Note also that this is not necessarily black and white: different utterances may be more or less declarative in degrees; however, we normally only call an utterance a 'declaration' if it is a sufficient condition for itself to become true.)

You are dismissed.

This sentence can be read in two ways; one is similar to the same sentence but in the third person or in the past: the utterance you were dismissed simply describes a situation where you were dismissed, but it is not a declaration. In that line of thought, you are dismissed could be read as a non-declarative description. The other reading is performative: by saying this, I affect the external world in such a way that the description becomes true and you are indeed dismissed. When both readings coincide, it is a declaration.

You cannot remain undismissed after my utterance: there is a direct causal link. This is essential. From that it follows that a declaration must describe an utterance (among other things), or there cannot be an inescapable causal link. And so it must normally contain some verbal phrase that expresses an utterance.

Note that the question who is to assign this truth value (you? I? someone else?) is open.

An explicit declaration is one that is self descriptive, in that the descriptive aspect of the utterance as a whole accurately describes the performative utterance. In you are dismissed, this is not the case, because you are x does not describe an utterance at all; it is therefore considered implicit. The word dismissed does describe an utterance, in that dismissing someone is uttering certain words, but dismissed is not the whole utterance.

I hereby dismiss you.

This is also a declaration, since the utterance affects its own truth value as above. It is an explicit declaration, because the descriptive aspect describes the act brought about by uttering it. It can be tested thus. If someone else produced the same utterance, describing the same state of affairs but with appropriate deixis (= pronouns and tenses, words referring to the external world), as in he thereby dismisses you, she would accurately describe my performative utterance. The sentence I hereby dismiss you must therefore be an explicit declaration.

A performative verb is short for a verb resulting in an utterance that is usually a declaration if you say I hereby [verb]. I say usually, because (almost) any sentence can be given a different illocutionary meaning given the right context.

Should I agree count as a declaration?

Brutus: — Caesar is a tyrant; he must be stopped.

Cassius: — I agree.

Is this a declaration? Does saying I agree affect its own truth value? I would say no, because agreeing means having an opinion, at least in this context: saying I agree merely informs the other party of Cassius' opinion here. Even if he said he agreed while he privately disagreed, this would not affect his private opinion: he would continue to disagree. One could write, indeed, I said "I agree" to you, but I did not in fact agree. If this I agree affected its own truth value, then Cassius could not secretly disagree while saying he agreed. But in fact nothing stopped Cassius from disagreeing and betraying Brutus. Therefore it must be something other than a declaration.

As mentioned above, for something to count as a declaration, there must be a direct causal link, in that uttering agreement is a sufficient condition for the agreement to come about. This is not the case. The fact that agreeing is not exactly an utterance itself already points to this.

Scipio: — Hannibal, your army has been destroyed, and you are our prisoner. You now have a choice: either you agree to cede Spain in the presence of the Carthaginian and Roman noblemen assembled in this room, and you will be set free; or you will die. Once you have agreed, there is no way back: Spain will be ours and your title forfeited. What say you?

Hannibal: — I agree.

In this context, it seems reasonable to read Hannibal's I agree as I formally agree, and I hereby cede Spain to the Roman Republic. To formally agree comes close enough to a verbal phrase expressing an utterance (as mentioned above), rather than having an opinion. Could his father Hasdrubal in Carthage say later, Hannibal said "I [formally] agree", but he did not [formally] agree? This does not seem reasonable. No, the utterance seems to be a sufficient cause for formally agreeing in this situation. But all this does depend on your interpretation of agree as formally agreeing, so it is not clear cut.

Is it an explicit declaration? Yes, if you read it as I formally agree. In this context, the utterance I agree as a whole accurately describes the speech act of formally agreeing. If you think that I agree does not actually 'mean' formally agreeing but requires interpretation as such, you will probably not consider this explicit. That is a subtle matter of definition which is perhaps not very important.

The same issue applies to all speech acts: what is the 'basic' or locutionary meaning of an utterance, and what is its illocutionary meaning? If you say could you pass the salt, is the basic meaning "so tell me about your ability to pass the salt; are you capable of doing so, you think?"? Or do you consider could you an idiomatic phrase meaning "I request that you..." at a basic enough level? A matter of definition, a choice.

Are not all assertive/constative statements declarations?

Father, I was forced to cede Spain to the Romans. I say we have lost the war.

Here Hannibal says Carthage has lost the war, and he says that he says it, by I say. This makes it technically a declaration: uttering it is sufficient to make I say true, and the truth value of I say determines that of the whole utterance. One cannot say, Hannibal uttered "I say we have lost the war", but in fact he did not say that. That is, this can only work as a paradox, in which say and said are taken to mean two different things in context—which are for the Oracle to decipher, because I wouldn't understand it. The declaration is explicit, because the whole content of the utterance accurately describes itself.

We have lost the war.

Here we have no I say. However, should we not implicitly read I say here? After all, this sentence means exactly the same as the one in the previous example. Perhaps this is absurd, or perhaps it is the most rigorous application of Searle's definition. The consequence would be that all descriptive utterances are taken as declarations with implicit I say. I have no answer. This shows the limits of speech-act theories.

Other examples.

You're out!

This is could be read as a declaration, if by being out you mean the registered statistic in the game. That is also how the umpire means it, so from his perspective it is a declaration. However, if you read it as being at the designated position at that exact time, it is possible that the umpire was wrong: you can then say the umpire said "you're out!", but he was in fact not out. Here the question 'who is to judge the truth value?' becomes very relevant, and this goes beyond my answer. It is not explicit, however, because being out does not describe an utterance, and therefore it cannot describe itself. There is no verbal expression of utterance, as in I declare you out.

"I apologise", I said, but I didn't feel sorry at all: it was his own fault, and I would do it again. He did not respond.

Is this a declaration? Does saying I apologise make the statement true? Can you say, he said "I apologise", but he did not in fact apologise? I think not, at least not in this context. You can apologise and not mean it, but that is different. It is also explicit because the whole utterance describes itself.

He said, "I apologise", but he looked me in the eyes, grinned, and hit me again.

Here it seems clear that neither the speaker nor the listener believe that it is really an apology. Can you say, he said "I apologise", but he did not in fact apologise? Suddenly this seems more reasonable. If you repeat the offence, even while saying I apologise, you are not truly apologising—or are you? It depends on which linguistic level you read I apologise on. If you read it as "I am making an apologetic statement", you are apologising even in this example; if you read it as "I am sincerely sorry", then you are not apologising.

Irony makes it so that an utterance is interpreted (by both parties) at a deeper illocutionary or perlocutionary level that is very different from the superficial, basic, locutionary meaning. With irony, you can make any statement mean anything. So it may be a declaration at some level, but not at another. It depends on how you read it, and, again, I think this shows how Searle's classification has its limits in terms of usefulness.

  • Very good answer. FWIW, in baseball an umpire can't be factually wrong since it's the umpire's call that causes the state of out-ness to exist and out-ness doesn't exist until and if an umpire so calls - further there are no replays, appeals, or overrulings so a call stands forever. Baseball has some fascinating linguistic and philosophical aspects :) Dec 3, 2012 at 21:28
  • 1
    @MarkBeadles: Thanks! (But...would you say the same thing if it were you the umpire had called out? Just kidding.)
    – Cerberus
    Dec 4, 2012 at 1:31

Let me start from the definitions first. According to the Speech Act Theory, an utterance can be constative or performative.

  1. A constative utterance is one which makes an assertion but is not performative.

    "John promised to repay me tomorrow"

    The utterance describes a promise (made by John), but is not by itself a promise.

  2. A performative utterance simultaneously describes and performs the act described.

    "I promise to repay you tomorrow"

    In this case, the person is promising, and not reporting about a promise.

According to Searle's classification, speech acts can be categorized as follows:

  1. Declarations: These are words and expressions that change the world by their very utterance, such as “I bet”, “I declare”, “I resign” or “I hereby pronounce you man and wife”.
  2. Representatives: These are acts in which the words state what the speaker believes to be the case, such as “describing”, “claiming”, “hypothesizing”.
  3. Commissives: This includes acts in which the words commit the speaker to future actions, such as “promising”, “offering”, “threatening”.
  4. Directives: This category covers acts in which the words are aimed at making the hearer do something, such as “commanding”, “requesting”, “inviting”.
  5. Expressives: This last group includes acts in which the words state what the speaker feels, such as “apologizing”, “praising”, “congratulating”.

Under Searle's classification, an oath or a promise are classified as commissive. Your example about the batter is classified as directive.

So when an utterance is performative, you basically do things with words, when it's constative, you just describe. Furthermore, performative verbs are those verbs which can make an utterance performative when used in a simple 1° person tense sentence, in all other cases the sentence stays constative.

In a paper Semantic analysis of English performative verbs, "agree" is considered as capable of acting as a speech act verb:

The verb "agree" is both a propositional attitude and a speech act verb. One can be in the mental state of being in accord or agreement with someone without uttering any words. One can also agree verbally with someone by making the speech act of agreeing. In this illocutionary sense, to agree is to assert a proposition P while presupposing (the preparatory condition) that other persons have previously put forward that proposition and while expressing (sincerity condition) one's accord or agreement with these persons as regards P.
The person(s) with whom the speaker agrees may, but need not, be the hearer(s). One can say "I agree with him that P" as well as "I agree with you that P." The contrary of "agree" is "disagree". To disagree is to assert a proposition with the preparatory condition that other persons have previously put forward the negation of that proposition and the sincerity condition that one is in a state of disagreement with them.

Still according to Searle, there is a general condition for all speech acts:

The hearer must hear and understand the language, and the speaker must not be pretending or play-acting.

So if the speaker is lying, the verb is not a Speech Act one.

  • I understand your reasoning of the batter example being a directive, however couldn't it also be considered a declaration? The umpire stating the batter is out, makes it so. But accordingly a certain behavior is expected of him, which would make up the 'directive' part. Dec 1, 2012 at 20:15
  • This paper states 'agree' and 'disagree' are capable of acting as speech act verbs. This is similar to them being able of being used as a performative, contradicting the book right? Dec 1, 2012 at 20:43
  • 1
    @StevenJeuris (to your #1 comment) Yes, certainly utterances' classification can overlap, so one utterance could fall under multiple categories. You can read more about that on Speech Act Theory, page 17, starting from "In these classes...". Although it treats about Austin's classification, it compares it to Searle's for this issue which we are interested in. :)
    – Alenanno
    Dec 1, 2012 at 20:50
  • 1
    Any list of "performative verbs" without a corresponding list of contexts and frames in which they are performative or not performative is bound to be incomplete and incorrect in many details. Don't depend on anything like that for categorization.
    – jlawler
    Dec 1, 2012 at 21:05
  • 1
    Performativity is a pragmatic property, and is thus a property of utterances in context, but not normally of lexical items. I.e, it's not really correct to speak of a "performative verb", just like it's not really correct to speak of a "passive verb"; both properties are dependent on something besides lexicon.
    – jlawler
    Dec 1, 2012 at 21:21

The above examples seem very verbose and hard to understand. I believe the point of the "thereby" test is to determine if a particular speech act performs the act that it's describing. So "I apologize" is an explicit performative because In saying “I apologize” in appropriate circumstances, I thereby apologize. With a statement like "I agree" I believe opening it up to the possibility of lying is misleading. In saying "I agree" in appropriate circumstance, I don't thereby agree. I already formulated the thoughts in my head that lead to the condition of my agreeing with you. Saying "I agree" is simply informing you of something that already existed before I performed said speech act.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.