How to Do Things with Words

by J. L. Austin

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The first important theme is the distinction between constative and performative utterances. This distinction is important if we are to avoid the fallacious claim that language is merely about describing the world. Austin's book, as the title suggests, tells us all the things that words can do, apart from describing the world. In a constative utterance, one simply states a fact that is true or false, such as "eNotes is a website," "I am typing on this keyboard," or "The room is dark." Each of these utterances may turn out to be true or false—they have a truth value. These utterances have presuppositions, too: if, in fact, there is no keyboard, "I am typing on this keyboard" is neither true nor false. In a performative utterance, however, we do not merely report a fact, but we do something. For example, I might say, "I promise to finish this answer within 120 minutes," or "I swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth," or "I name this cat Mr. Whiskerton," or "I pronounce you man and wife." In these statements, I am promising, or taking an oath, or performing an act of naming, or officiating at a wedding ceremony. These acts are performative because they are bound by conventions.

This distinction leads us to another important theme: misfirings. According to Austin, performative utterances have the capacity to misfire. Consider that I am not an ordained minister. If I pronounce someone man and wife, that utterance will misfire because it is not appropriate for me to be uttering those words. Consider that I am naming my neighbour's cat Mr. Whiskerton; again, this will misfire because the circumstances are not appropriate.

And now we can touch upon the final big theme: truth. The truth or falsity in the case of performative utterances will have to do with misfiring or not misfiring—thus, it does not have to do with the meaning of the words themselves. If I say "New York is the largest city in the United States," this can be verified by consulting the appropriate sources. It is either true or false based on whether or not it corresponds to the facts. This theory of truth is called the correspondence theory of truth. However, the truth or falsity of "I pronounce you man and wife" is not dependent on the correspondence with some facts but, rather, on whether or not there is some misfiring. Misfiring, in turn, is dependent upon convention. Thus, once we recognize performative utterance as an important aspect of our language, we are also driven to change our definition and understanding of truth and falsity.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access