Performative utterance

From Academic Kids

Performative utterances are speech acts which perform the action the sentence describes. For example:

  • "I promise to be there."
  • "I order you to desist!"
  • "I now pronounce you husband and wife."
  • "I challenge you to cite a precedent."
  • "I accept your offer."
  • "I deny that accusation."

One could could say "I resent that remark" without actually resenting the remark, but one cannot say "I accept your offer" without actually accepting the offer. Thus, the former is not performative, but the latter is.

Performative utterances are often in the first person present tense. While some linguists and theorists might describe them as rare occurances, others, such as Eve Sedgwick, have forcefully argued that there are performative aspects to nearly all words, sentences, and phrases.

Performative utterances can be 'transformative' performatives, which create an instant change of personal or environmental status or 'promisory' performatives, which describe the world as it might be in the future. These categories are not exclusive, so an utterance may well have both qualities.

Some performative speech may be socially contested. For instance, two gay men saying "I do" in a wedding ceremony may be accepted as a performative act by some, but not by others.

Performative utterances can be revoked, either by the person who uttered them ("I take back my promise"), or by some other party not immediately involved, like the state (for example, gay marriage vows).

Words on a list can be either descriptive or performative. 'Butter' on a shopping list implies that "I will buy butter" (a promise to yourself). But 'Butter' printed on your till receipt means "you have purchased butter" (simply a description).



Naming can also be both performative and descriptive, in certain superstitious circles. Macbeth is a simple name that describes the Shakespeare character and is the title of the play. But uttering the name Macbeth among actors who are performing the play is thought to trigger instant ill fortune in the production. The well known phrase "Speak of the devil and he will appear" follows similar superstitious logic. It is a relic of "magical thinking", along with, and much like, the idea that making utterances over a representative fragment (a lock of a person's hair) will cause something to happen in the wider world (the person will fall in love).

Descriptives and promises

Even descriptive utterances can be construed as being 'promisory' performative. For instance, someone standing on a street corner and describing to you a place you are trying to get to. Their description of the place takes the form of a 'promise' - the words are the place for you, for the moment - but you only know if the 'promise' of the words have been fulfilled when you personally reach the place in question.


  • "I now pronounce you man and wife." (conferred personal status change)
  • "I christen you" (conferred personal status change)
  • "I accept your apology" (conferred personal status change)
  • "I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you" (conferred personal status change) (Islamic: see: Talaq-i-Bid'ah or triple Talaq (

  • "I do" wedding (self-actuated personal status change)
  • "I swear to do that" (self-actuated personal status change - you are now bound)
  • "I promise to be there" (self-actuated personal status change - you are now bound)
  • "I apologize" (self-actuated personal status change)

  • "This meeting is now adjourned" (conferred environment status change)
  • "The court is now in session" (conferred environment status change)
  • "This church is hereby de-sanctified" (conferred environment status change)
  • "War is declared" (conferred environment status change)

  • "I sentence you to death" (conferred, will prove true or false in the future)
  • "I promise to be there" (self-actuated, will prove true or false in the future)
  • "I swear to do that" (self-actuated, will prove true or false in the future)
  • "I apologize" (self-actuated, will change your status if the apology is accepted)

Performative writing

The above ideas have influenced performative writing; they are used as a justification for an attempt to create a new form of critical writing about performance (often about performance art). Such a writing form is claimed to be, in itself, a form of performance. It is said to more accurately reflect the fleeting and ephemeral nature of a performance, and the various tricks of memory and referentiality that happen in the mind of the viewer during and after the performance.

See also

it:performativo (atto verbale)


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