How to Do Things with Words

by J. L. Austin

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

How to Do Things with Words is a treatise on linguistics by British philosopher John Landshaw. The work is divided into twelve chapters, based on lectures. Landshaw first divides speech up into two categories. Firstly, he talks about "constantives"—although these are essentially just descriptions, he avoids calling them descriptions, because "not all false statements are descriptions." Secondly, he talks about the category of "performatives," "which do not describe or report anything, and are not true or false"—they essentially constitute a performance. Landshaw also acknowledges a third category of statements that do not fit into either category (including statements of opinion, such as "it's a nice day today").

In subsequent chapters, Landshaw divides statements up into implicit and explicit speech acts, at which point this distinction between constantives and peformatives breaks down, as certain statements can have explicit meanings that are constantives and implict meanings that are performative.

Overall, the book is a monumental for the attention it calls to the ramifications of speech. For this reason, too, it belongs to the camp of philosophy as much as to linguistics. One term introduced herein, "speech act," first suggested the idea that words constitute a performance and that the context of words is important to understanding them.

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