The how in ‘How to do things with Words’

2 min readAug 25, 2016

JL Austin’s posthumous book How to do things with Words repays close reading. It is the locus classicus for his hugely influential theory of speech acts, and it is full of subtle, donnish jokes and learned asides. He did not complete the work, which was edited for publication from a well-used typescript by his friend JO Urmson. The typescript had been prepared for lectures at Harvard and elsewhere. Even in this day and age, academic or scholarly books quite frequently start as lectures and then become typescripts and finally emerge into their print and electronic forms for final publication. We should perhaps remember these oral or spoken origins when we read Austin’s book which propounds a theory of ‘speech acts’. But Austin’s theory is really a theory of language acts, and although most of his examples are of spoken acts, or performative utterances strictu sensu, his theory is not at all limited to spoken language. What he says about typescript and print is highly relevant to his broad theory. And he makes these points in a highly performative way using the specific affordances of print. His book revels in using the performative aspects of language and it is for that reason a surprisingly entertaining read.

In discussing ‘explicit performatives’ he gives us several examples of the way that print conventions render performatives explicit. For example when we use tone of voice or cadence:

It’s going to charge! (a warning)

It’s going to charge? (a question)

It’s going to charge!? (a protest)

These features of spoken language are not reproducible readily in written language. For example we have tried to convey the tone of voice cadence and emphasis of a protest by the use of an exclamation mark and a question mark (but this is very jejune).

How to do things with Words p.74

But three pages later he explicitly reminds us (in case we had not noticed):

It should be noted that when performative verbs exist we can use them not only in ‘that…’ or ‘to…’ formulas but also in stage directions (‘welcomes’), titles (warning!), and parentheses (this is almost as good a test of a performative as our normal forms).

Austin is using his parentheses to give us explicit performative advice on the use of performatives. He is using device of punctuation brackets to make the very point about illocutionary force that he is in fact talking about, or if you will, writing about. In this case the brackets are doing the talking. Do you see what I mean by his donnish jokes and learned asides? It is crucial that we draw from this the point that ‘speech acts’ of course encompass writing acts. His book is highly performative.