John Austin on performative utterances


(From: J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, ed. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisá. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962.)


[Defining the Performative]

Utterances can be found… such that:

  1. They do not ‘describe’ or ‘report’ or constate anything at all, are not ‘true or false,’ and
  2. The uttering of the sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of an action, which again would not normally be described as, or as ‘just,’ saying something.


This is far from being as paradoxical as it may sound or as I have meanly been trying to make it sound: indeed, the examples now to be given will be disappointing.



a.       ‘I do (sc. take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife)’ – as uttered in the course of the marriage ceremony.

b.      ‘I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth’ – as uttered when smashing the bottle against the stem.

c.       ‘I give and bequeath my watch to my brother’ – as occurring in a will.

d.      ‘I bet you sixpence it will rain tomorrow.’


In these examples it seems clear that to utter the sentence (in, of course, the appropriate circumstances) is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it. … What are we to call a sentence or an utterance of this type? I propose to call it a performative sentence or a performative utterance, or, for short, a ‘performative.’ (pp. 5-6)


[Implications of the definition]

Are we then to say things like this:

            ‘To marry is to say a few words’ or

            ‘Betting is simply saying something’?

Such a doctrine sounds odd or even flippant at first, but with sufficient safeguards it may become not odd at all. … The uttering of the words is, indeed, usually a, or even the, leading incident in the performance of the act (of betting or what not), the performance of which is also the object of the utterance, but it is far from being usually, even if it is ever, the sole thing necessary if the act is to be deemed to have been performed. Speaking generally, it is always necessary that the circumstances in which the words are uttered should be, in some way, or ways, appropriate, and it is very commonly necessary that either the speaker himself or other persons should also perform certain other actions, whether ‘physical’ or ‘mental’ actions or even acts of uttering further words. … Surely the words must be spoken ‘seriously’ and so as to be taken ‘seriously’? This is, though vague, true enough in general – it is an important commonplace in discussing the purport of any utterance whatsoever. I must not be joking, for example, nor writing a poem…. (pp. 6-8)


[Wider consequences]

Once we realize that what we have to study is not the sentence but the issuing of an utterance in a speech situation, there can hardly be any longer a possibility of not seeing that stating is performing an act. (p. 139)