The distinctive feature of a performative utterance is that, in a sense we have tried to make clear, the saying constitutes a doing of something. In saying, “I pronounce you husband and wife,” a minister is not simply describing a marriage ceremony, she is performing it. Here, however, an objection might arise. Suppose someone who is a supporter of family values goes about the streets pronouncing random couples husband and wife. Unless this person is a member of the clergy, a justice of the peace, a ship’s captain, or the like, that person will have no right to make such pronouncements. Furthermore, even if this person is, say, a crazed member of the clergy, the pronouncement will still not come off—that is, the utterance will not succeed in making any- one husband and wife. The parties addressed have to say, “I do,” they must have a proper license, and so on. This example shows that a speech act will fail to come off or will be void unless certain rules or conventions are satisfied. These rules or conventions that must be satisfied for a speech act to come off and not be void will be called speech act rules.
The main types of speech act rules can be discovered by considering the following questions:
1. Must the speaker use any special words or formulas to perform the speech act?
Sometimes a speech act will come off only if certain words or formulas are used. In baseball the umpire must say, “Strike two,” or something very close
to this, in order to call a second strike. In a pickup game it might be all right to say instead, “Hey, that’s two bad ones on you, baby!” but that way of calling strikes is not permitted in serious play. Similarly, certain legal documents are not valid if they are not properly signed, endorsed, notarized, and so forth.
2. Is any response or uptake by the audience needed in order to complete the speech act?
Sometimes a speech act will come off only if there is an uptake by another person. A person can offer a bet by saying, “I bet you ten dollars that the An- gels will win today,” but this person will have made a bet only if the other person says, “Done” or “You’re on,” shakes hands, or in some other way ac- cepts the bet. A marriage ceremony is completely void if one of the parties does not say, “I do,” but instead says, “Well, maybe I should think about this for a while.”
3. Must the (a) speaker or (b) audience hold any special position or role in order for the speaker to perform the speech act?
Sometimes a speech act will come off only if it is performed by someone with an official position. We have already seen that, for someone to make two peo- ple husband and wife by pronouncing them husband and wife, that person must hold a certain official position. Similarly, even if a body is plainly dead when it arrives at the hospital, a janitor cannot pronounce it dead on arrival. That is the job of a doctor or a coroner. In the same way, although a shortstop can perform the linguistic act of shouting, “You’re out,” a shortstop cannot perform the speech act of calling someone out. Only an umpire can do that. Moreover, even an umpire cannot call out the catcher or a spectator, so some- times the audience of the speech also needs to have some special position.
4. Are any other special circumstances required for the speech act?
Most speech acts also involve assumptions or presuppositions that certain facts obtain. A father cannot bequeath an antique car to his son if he does not own such a car. You cannot resign from the American Civil Liberties Union or the Veterans of Foreign Wars if you are not a member.
5. What feelings, desires, or beliefs is the speaker expected to have?
If we apologize for something, we are expected to feel sorry for what we have done. If we congratulate someone, we are usually supposed to be pleased with that person’s success. If we state something, we are expected to believe what we say.
6. What general purpose or purposes are served by this kind of speech act?
This final question asks why a certain kind of speech act exists at all. Why, for example, is there the speech act of promising?