In response to my recent struggle to find a single word that encompasses both "request" and "proposal," James Bullock referred me to linguists who study speech acts, acts that we perform through language. Examples of speech acts include requesting, proposing, praising, announcing, nagging, denouncing, welcoming, and convicting.

A number of linguists have created taxonomies that sort speech acts into categories. In some taxonomies, the category that covers "request" and "proposal" is imperative. In more recent taxonomies, linguists typically refer to speech acts in this category as directives. This category (under either name) also includes speech acts such as requiring, permitting, advising, demanding, telling, and suggesting.

Sadly, neither "directive" nor "imperative" solves the problem I wrote about last month. — "When people resist your directives ..." doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. So I have to agree with Ron Thompson and Pat Sciacca that I'm unlikely to find a single word to use in my writing.

But my search for the right word was only a small part of a larger, more important quest: to explore how the form of our requests (or proposals) affects the way people respond. Thanks to James's pointer, I learned a great deal about that. I will write about that in the future.

If you want to learn what linguists have to say about different kinds of speech acts, here are some sources to explore:

How to Do Things With Words . John L. Austin.
One of the earlier descriptions of speech acts. Other sources often refer to this one as foundational.
Expression and Meaning . John R. Searle.
Searle is a major authority on the theory of speech acts. The first chapter of describes a brief taxonomy of speech acts, and gives the criteria that Searle used to sort speech acts into categories.
Linguistic Communication and Speech Acts . Kent Bach and Robert M. Harnish.
Bach and Harnish present a deeper, more detailed taxonomy than either Austin or Searle. The organize directives into subcategories: request, question, require, permit, and advise.
English Speech Act Verbs: A Semantic Dictionary . Anna Wierzbicka.
This book is a gold mine for me. It defines in extraordinary detail approximately 150 English speech act verbs, including the ones I'm most interested in (e.g. ask, demand, order, suggest, propose, insist). This "dictionary" avoids much of the circularity that is prevalent in most dictionaries by defining each verb in terms of number of sentences build from a very small lexicon of very simple words. For example, here is the definition of order:
  • I assume you understand that you have to do what I say I want to you to do.
  • I say: I want you to cause X to happen.
  • I say this because I want to cause you to do it.
  • I assume that you will do it because if that.
Following each definition is a discussion of the subtleties of each verb, contrasting each word with similar words — for example, how order differs from demand and command.

A big thank you to James Bullock for pointing me in this direction!

comments powered by Disqus