Category Archives: Speech-Act Theory and Composition Studies

Video Proposal: A Speech-Act Theory Adventure

My video, “A Speech-Act Theory Adventure,” will illustrate four key terms from J.L. Austin’s speech-act theory: utterance, propositional utterance, illocutionary utterance, and perlocutionary utterance. The video will follow a main character through several scenes, including situations from everyday life such as waiting for public transit, making coffee, convincing a partner it’s time for bed, and delivering a sermon. The main character will remain unnamed in order to highlight how one can generalize the video’s conclusions to all linguistic situations.

The video will utilize a chiastic structure: the first half will proceed through examples of utterance, propositional utterance, illocutionary utterance, and perlocutionary utterance (in that order), while the second half will revisit the earlier examples to illustrate how the illocutionary, propositional, and basic utterances (in that order) can all be reinterpreted as perlocutionary, that is seeking to affect the behavior of others. The shot list goes into detail about how I will reveal the perlocutionary aspect of each exchange. I will utilize voice-overs throughout to define key terms and ask probing questions. Happy Fun Communication Land (HFCL) provides visual and textual content for some portions of the video. I will create the animated scenes using GoAnimate, and I plan to edit the video using iMovie and the sound with Audacity.

Through the video, students will learn the definitions of the four key terms in J.L. Austin’s speech-act theory, which will provide an opportunity to discuss speech as an act, language as a performance. Students will become aware of the underlying coercive goals of all (or most) speech/writing/language. The video will ask students to consider whether or not all language is in fact rhetorical.

The video will contribute to several of the big-picture goals that the Council of Writing Program Administrators articulated in its “Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition.” By teaching several key terms and then showing how they can be reinterpreted from a different perspective, the video will engage students in the kind of critical thinking fundamental to the development of their writings skills. In particular, by illustrating the coercive intent of language, the video contributes to the following learning outcome: “By the end of first year composition, students should understand the relationships among language, knowledge, and power.” In a less explicit way, the video itself will show students the potential of technology for expressing ideas in a non-traditional medium.

Shot List


Or click for PDF of shot list.

Annotated Bibliography: Speech-Act Theory and Composition Studies

My annotated bibliography surveys composition studies scholarship on speech-act theory. Through this assignment, I will think through how J.L. Austin’s formulations can help students understand language as performative and also inform the ways that we teach composition. Composition studies utilized speech-act theory primarily during the 1970s, late 1980s, and early 1990s.[1] Mary Lynch Kennedy notes that scholars have utilized speech-act theory to develop pedagogical tools, including Kim B. Lovejoy in the list below.[2] Edith H. Babin and Kimberly Harrison suggest that “speech act theory can be used in discussions of the writing process, audience awareness, voice, and text interpretation.”[3] Speech-act theory has broad implications for how we understand speech, language, and writing in general: it makes us aware of the coercive intentions of language, allows us to envision speech as an act, and thus opens our eyes to the performative nature of all language, especially writing.

Bibliography entries

    1. Marilyn M. Cooper, “The Ecology of Writing,” College English 48.4 (April 1986): 364-75.
    2. Kim B. Lovejoy, “The Gricean Model: A Revising Rubric,” Journal of Teaching Writing 6.1 (Spring 1987): 9-18.
    3. Reed Way Dasenbrock, “J.L. Austin and the Articulation of a New Rhetoric,” College Composition and Communication 38.3 (Oct. 1987): 291-305.

Group bibliography:


[1] Edith H. Babin and Kimberly Harrison, Contemporary Composition Studies: A Guide to Theorists and Terms (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999), 245.
[2] Mary Lynch Kennedy, Theorizing Composition: A Critical Sourcebook of Theory and Scholarship in Contemporary Composition Studies (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2006), 308.
[3] Babin and Harrison, 245.

Entry 1: Marilyn M. Cooper, “The Ecology of Writing”

In her article, “The Ecology of Writing,” Marilyn M. Cooper proposes an ecological model of writing communities, a model that builds upon social-epistemic rhetoric and reacts against cognitive process theory. Cooper bases her ecological model on a number of other theories, including speech-act theory, and defines writing within her model as “an activity through which a person is continually engaged with a variety of socially constituted systems” (367). She does not cite explicitly any speech-act theorists, but does articulate a socially-centered model of writing that hinges upon the acts that writers make in relation to their readers and communities. She concludes her article with the following statement about the action-centered nature of her model: “Writing is one of the activities by which we locate ourselves in the enmeshed systems that make up the social world. It is not simply a way of thinking but more fundamentally a way of acting” (373, emphasis mine).

Cooper spends the first few pages of the article opposing the cognitive model which envisions writing as a mental process free from the influence of social interaction. She particularly opposes the way that cognitive models have influenced classroom practices, instructing the student as a “solitary writer” to imagine their audience and their purpose for writing mentally rather than learning concretely about their readers and goals through social practice (365-66). She argues that new pedagogical techniques are needed to combat the dominant view that writing is an internal, mental practice (367). While her ecological model builds upon contextual, social conceptions of writing, Cooper distinguishes her model from contextual models such as Kenneth Burke’s by underlining the “inherently dynamic” character of the ecological system (367-68). Further, she argues that “in contrast, an ecology of writing encompasses much more than the individual writer and her immediate context. An ecologist explores how writers interact to form systems” (368).

In terms of speech-act theory, Cooper continually underscores the way that writing is an action within a social system. The very systems that Cooper imagines are “made and remade by writers in the act of writing. It is in this sense that writing changes social reality” (368). Additionally, “the systems are concrete. … they are not postulated mental entities” (369). The very ideas, purposes, and goals for writing are not created by a solitary writer. Instead, writers generate ideas from “contact” and thus “ideas are also always continuations, as they arise within and modify particular fields of discourse” (369). In this way, we can envision the intentions and actions of speech-act theory within a constantly redefined and reconstituted system of social interaction among writers and readers. Without explicitly citing speech-act theorists, Cooper builds upon their conclusions to establish her ecological model of writing. She argues, “Textual forms, like language forms in general, are … revolutionary, instruments of new forms of action” (371).

In terms of pedagogy, Cooper confronts problems of audience, arguing for classroom practices that encourage students to confront their “readers as real social beings” because in “real” discourse communities writers “know their readers through real social encounters,” i.e. in academic discourse communities (372). Cooper suggests that writing teachers ought to structure their classrooms in such a way that student writers can practice the acts of social interaction that lead to the formulation of purpose in writing. She encourages students to interact with one another, and in this way teachers can “enable our students to see each other as real readers, not as stand-ins for a general audience” (372). As a result, students will learn how writing is an act within a web of social interactions.

Cooper acknowledges a major criticism of her model, namely that “the image the ecological model projects is again an ideal one.” The ecological model does not make the social forces and interactions among writers and readers any more evident and available for objective consideration than earlier social/contextual models of writing. Although Cooper’s model is limited in the same sense that other social models of rhetoric are limited, her suggestions for classrooms practices are promising. By encouraging students to interact with one another and thus communicate with “real” readers, Cooper’s model helps students see how writing is a purposeful, social act that constitutes the discourse communities in which students participate. Cooper’s ecological model of writing thus constructs an interactive, socially conscious view of writing that builds upon the more basic conceptions of utterance and intention in speech-act theory.

Marilyn M. Cooper, “The Ecology of Writing,” College English 48.4 (April 1986): 364-75.

Entry 2: Kim B. Lovejoy, “The Gricean Model: A Revising Rubric”

Lovejoy opens her article with a statement about the recursive (rather than linear) nature of writing and revision, and cites several studies of student revision processes. She follows up on Nancy Sommers’ studies about student revision primarily focusing on word choice and sentence-level revisions rather than big picture modifications. Lovejoy summarizes earlier research as follows: “The consensus, then, is that students tend to make surface changes and ignore content or meaning changes. Their conception of revision parallels what we normally think of as editing. If we are to teach our students how to revise, we need to communicate to them what writers do when they revise” (9).

Lovejoy utilizes H.P. Grice’s theory of conversation to create a revising strategy for composition courses. She notes that Grice’s theory is based on speech-act theory, but he “modifies the system worked out by Austin and Searle and offers a more general approach to an understanding of language use” (10). Grice formulated the Cooperative Principle, which seeks to grasp the rules of conversational exchange. Grice describes four conversational maxims: quantity (speech should be as informative as the situation requires), quality (speech should be “true” and should not include claims based on inadequate evidence), relation (speech should be relevant to the person you’re addressing), and manner (speech should not confuse with lengthy, ambiguous, disordered, or obscure expressions) (10). Following earlier speech-act theorists, Grice focuses on the intentionality of language and the speech-acts that take place between author and reader.

Lovejoy argues that Grice’s model is especially useful for composition students because “it helps students to understand that writing, like speaking, is a cooperative effort” (12). When students understand that they are participating in a conversation with their reader, they will become more conscious of the clarity of their utterances. Lovejoy sees Grice’s model as a useful tool to help students envision “a center of gravity” for their writing; this center involves a dual focus on audience and a purposeful and focused thesis. Lovejoy offers a chart/heuristic that introduces students to Grice’s four maxims, illustrating the ineffective quality of writing that does not conform to the four goals (14). Lovejoy sees her rubric as particularly useful for students writing research papers because the Gricean rubric helps students decide what supporting information is valuable and what is unnecessary.

Lovejoy acknowledges that her Gricean rubric does not introduce students to new techniques or information, but she continues to argue for its clarity and simplicity: “The value of the Gricean model is not that it asks new questions relating to revision; its value is that it makes the standard questions clearer, more comprehensible, and more forceful by providing the student with an organizational scheme that does not sacrifice its heuristic power for simplicity” (15). At first, I was concerned that Lovejoy’s model would be too restrictive of student writing, but she does suggest that teachers can teach advanced students to flout the maxims in a purposeful and effective way (17).

Kim B. Lovejoy, “The Gricean Model: A Revising Rubric,” Journal of Teaching Writing 6.1 (Spring 1987): 9-18.

Entry 3: Reed Way Dasenbrock, “J.L. Austin and the Articulation of a New Rhetoric”

In his article, Reed Way Dasenbrock utilizes speech-act theory to position himself within the scholarly debate about classical rhetoric, its failure to describe modern rhetorical contexts, and the resulting need for a so-called New Rhetoric. Dasenbrock argues that J.L. Austin’s speech-act theory provides the foundation needed to move modern rhetoric away from classical rhetoric’s “over-emphasis on persuasive discourse and figurative language” (292).

Dasenbrock provides a basic outline of Austin’s philosophy of language, showing that Austin argued against the traditional philosophical position that the sentence, or descriptive proposition, was the central unit and purpose of language (294). Instead, Austin argued that to speak was to act and not merely to describe. As Dasenbrock summarized it, Austin’s central argument was that “language is a mode of acting in the world, not of reflecting it” (297).

According to Dasenbrock, the legacy of Locke and Plato led to a view of language that categorized sentences as either persuasive or referential. In contrast, Austin demonstrated that “all discourse is multifunctional, oriented both towards its subject and its audience” (298).  Dasenbrock describes how a Lockean view of language affects students’ writing. For example, students have difficulty writing transitions within their essays because it is difficult to link constantives (fact-statements) when it appears that these statements are merely descriptive and have no argumentative purpose. Dasenbrock teaches his students to write with the performance of language always in mind, which makes it easier for them to see how each sentence “does something instead of referring to something” (298). In addition, Dasenbrock undermines the Lockean view that language can state a fact in simple terms and instead teaches his students “about indirection and implication, showing how the ideal of a plain concise style may be a partial contradiction” (303).

While Dasenbrock talks explicitly about how to teach Austin’s speech-act theory to students, I think that his outlining of Austin’s philosophy and the historical precedents for rhetoric would be very useful for students to read. I plan to assign this article to students to help them see how speech-act theory and its view of language can make their writing more purposeful and well-organized.

Reed Way Dasenbrock, “J.L. Austin and the Articulation of a New Rhetoric,” College Composition and Communication 38.3 (Oct. 1987): 291-305.