Sunday, September 23, 2007

Promises are not verbs

In today's Toronto Star, Andrew Chung writes,

"Promises are the currency of elections. With no platform to judge, on what other basis could voters make a decision when casting a ballot? Promises are also part of a category of verbs that experts call 'performative speech acts.' These utterances actually cause the speaker to perform a certain act."

I'm pleasantly surprised that the topic of performative speech acts (PSAs) should show up in The Star. They're rather curious self-fulfilling things. When you say, "I promise x", you have done so and need do no more. The act is carried out through the utterance. Promise isn't the only word that works this way. Other examples are declare, sentence, damn, pronounce, etc.

But notice that though this is a list of verbs, the verbs themselves do not, contrary to what Chung says, constitute speech acts. It is the utterance, usually in the form of a sentence, that is the PSA. Nor are promises verbs. But I do appreciate Chung's giving it the old college try.

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