The different types of sentences recognized by traditional grammarians indicate that we use language to do more than convey information. But this traditional classification of sentences gives only a small idea of the wide variety of things that we can accomplish using language. Sometimes, for example, in using language we actually do things in the sense of bringing something about. In one familiar setting, if one person says, “I do,” and another person says, “I do,” and finally a third person says, “I now pro- nounce you husband and wife,” the relationship between the first two peo- ple changes in a fundamental way: They are thereby married. With luck, they begin a life of wedded bliss, but they also alter their legal relationship. For example, they may now file joint income tax returns and may not legally marry other people without first getting divorced.
In uttering sentences of this kind, the speaker thereby does something more than merely stating something. The philosopher J. L. Austin labeled such utter- ances performatives in order to contrast performing an action with simply describing something.2 For example, if an umpire shouts, “You’re out!” then the batter is out. The umpire is not merely describing the situation but declaring the batter out. By way of contrast, if someone in the stands shouts, “He’s out!” the batter is not thereby out, although the person who shouts this may be en- couraging the umpire to call the batter out or complaining because he didn’t.
Performatives come in a wide variety of forms. They are often in the first person (like “I do”), but not always. “You’re all invited to my house after the game” is in the second person, but uttering it performs the act of inviting. In some circumstances, one person can speak for another person, a group, or an institution. At political conventions, heads of delegations say things like this: “The delegates from Kentucky, the Bluegrass State and the home of the Kentucky Derby, cast their votes for the next President of the United States, Joe W. Blodgett.” In saying this, the speaker performs the act of casting Kentucky’s votes in favor of Blodgett. Even silence can amount to a perfor- mative act in special situations. When the chairperson of a meeting asks if there are any objections to a ruling and none is voiced, then the voters, through their silence, have accepted the ruling.
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