In speech-act theory, a perlocutionary act is an action or state of mind brought about by, or as a consequence of, saying something. It is also known as a perlocutionary effect. "The distinction between the illocutionary act and the perlocutionary act is important," says Ruth M. Kempson:
"The perlocutionary act is the consequent effect on the hearer which the speaker intends should follow from his utterance."
Kempson offers this summary of the three interrelated speech acts originally presented by John L. Austin in "How to Do Things With Words" published in 1962:
"A speaker utters sentences with a particular meaning (locutionary act), and with a particular force (illocutionary act), in order to achieve a certain effect on the hearer (perlocutionary act)."
Examples and Observations
A. P. Martinich, in his book, "Communication and Reference," defines a perlocutionary act as follows:
"Intuitively, a perlocutionary act is an act performed by saying something, and not in saying something. Persuading, angering, inciting, comforting and inspiring are often perlocutionary acts; but they would never begin an answer to the question 'What did he say?' Perlocutionary acts, in contrast with locutionary and illocutionary acts, which are governed by conventions, are not conventional but natural acts (Austin 1955, p. 121). Persuading, angering, inciting, etc. cause physiological changes in the audience, either in their states or behavior; conventional acts do not."
An Example of a Perlocutionary Effect
Nicholas Allott gives this view of a perlocutionary act in his book, "Key Terms in Pragmatics":
"Consider a negotiation with a hostage-taker under siege. The police negotiator says: 'If you release the children, we'll allow the press to publish your demands.' In making that utterance she has offered a deal (illocutionary act). Suppose the hostage-taker accepts the deal and as a consequence releases the children. In that case, we can say that by making the utterance, the negotiator brought about the release of the children, or in more technical terms, that this was a perlocutionary effect of the utterance."
In her book, "Speaking Back: The Free Speech Versus Hate Speech Debate," Katharine Gelber explains the effect of shouting "fire" in a crowded venue:
"In the perlocutionary instance, an act is performed by saying something. For example, if someone shouts 'fire' and by that act causes people to exit a building which they believe to be on fire, they have performed the perlocutionary act of convincing other people to exit the building… In another example, if a jury foreperson declares 'guilty' in a courtroom in which an accused person sits, the illocutionary act of declaring a person guilty of a crime has been undertaken. The perlocutionary act related to that illocution is that, in reasonable circumstances, the accused person would be convinced that they were to be led from the courtroom into a jail cell. Perlocutionary acts are acts intrinsically related to the illocutionary act which precedes them, but discrete and able to be differentiated from the illocutionary act."
The Accordion Effect
Marina Sbisà, in an essay titled, "Locution, Illocution, Perlocution," notes why perlocution can have a surprising effect:
"Perlocution has no upper border: any consequential effect of a speech act may be considered as perlocutionary. If breaking news surprises you so that you trip and fall, my announcement has not only been believed true by you (which is already a perlocutionary effect) and thus surprised you, but has also made you trip. fall, and (say) injure your ankle. This aspect of the so-called 'accordion effect' concerning actions and speech actions in particular (see Austin 1975: 110-115; Feinberg 1964) meets general consent, apart from those speech-act theorists who prefer to limit the notion of perlocutionary effect to intended perlocutionary effects… "
- Allott, Nicholas. "Key Terms in Pragmatics." Continuum, 2011.
- Gelber, Katharine. "Speaking Back: The Free Speech Versus Hate Speech Debate." John Benjamins, 2002.
- Martinich, A. P. "Communication and Reference." Walter de Gruyter, 1984.
- Sbisà, Marina. "Locution, Illocution, Perlocution" in "Pragmatics of Speech Actions," ed. by Marina Sbisà and Ken Turner. Walter de Gruyter, 2013.