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The Power of Speech Acts: All About Commissives

Do you have a strong sense of keeping promises? You may be familiar with the interlocking of pinkies that often accompanies a promise - the infamous pinky promise. But did you use this gesture when you were younger?

Fun fact: The pinky promise actually originated in Japan as 指切り (yurikiri) which translates to 'finger cut-off'. Are there any similar cultural variations of this gesture?

So what exactly does it mean to make a promise? This is just one example of a commissive speech act, which we will delve into in this article. We will start by defining commissives and then explore the various types. We will also discuss the reasons for using this type of speech act and how it affects both the speaker and the listener.

But first, let's understand the concept of speech acts. A speech act is any spoken utterance that serves a communicative purpose. Every time we speak, we are performing an action known as an illocutionary act. Speech acts can be categorized into five main types: assertive, directive, commissive, expressive, and declarative.

What Are Commissives and How Do They Work?

According to linguist John Searle, a commissive speech act is "an utterance that commits the speaker to a certain course of action". Simply put, it is a way for someone to guarantee that they will fulfill a promise or commitment in the future.

Some examples of commissive speech acts include:

  • Promise
  • Vow
  • Pledge
  • Guarantee
  • Swear
  • Offer
  • Refusal
  • Threat

Let's take a closer look at each of these types.


A promise is a personal or public commitment to do something specific or ensure that something will happen. It is a way for the speaker to assure themselves and others that they will follow through on their words. However, promises can also be broken.

Aside from the pinky promise, which is commonly used by children but also by adults, here are some other examples of promises:

  • "I promise to buy you a new book."
  • "I promise to tell you later."
  • "Do you promise to listen to me?"


A vow is a more formal or solemn promise, often made in a serious context. It is a pledge to commit oneself to a specific course of action or belief.

A few examples of vows are:

  • "I have made a vow to stop drinking."
  • "I vow to always be honest."
  • "Let's make a vow to support each other."

Vows are often associated with wedding ceremonies, where couples make promises to be faithful and supportive to each other throughout their marriage.


A pledge is a type of promise that often carries a sense of obligation or responsibility. It is a commitment to do something or act in a certain way.

Examples of pledges include:

  • "I pledge to always be a good friend."
  • "I've made a pledge to improve the community."
  • "I pledge to get my life together by the end of this year."

In terms of law, pledging can also refer to the temporary transfer of possessions to a lender until the borrower is able to repay the loan.

In addition, pledging can also involve monetary donations, often to charitable organizations, with the promise that the money will be put to good use.


When you guarantee something, you are ensuring that it will happen or be of a certain quality. It is a way to assure others of a certain outcome.

A few examples of guarantees are:

  • "I can guarantee the project will be completed by Monday."
  • "I guarantee she will leave."
  • "I guarantee you'll be happy with your gift."

Guarantees are often associated with purchases, with companies offering guarantees of satisfaction or money-back guarantees if the product does not meet the customer's expectations.


Note that this type of commissive speech act does not involve profanity. Instead, it refers to the act of making a firm statement of truth or commitment.

A few examples of swearing are:

  • "I swear I will finish painting the walls."
  • "I swear I'm telling the truth."

Whether you use a pinky promise or a formal vow, commissive speech acts play an important role in our everyday communication. By understanding their meaning and examples, we can better communicate our commitments and build trust with others.

The Power of Commissive Speech Acts: Understanding the Types and Their Meanings

When someone says, "I didn't hit him, I swear," they are using commissive speech acts. These statements involve making promises, vows, offers, refusals, or threats, and they play a significant role in communication and human interactions.

One common way to express sincerity and accountability is by swearing on the name of someone respected or loved. This can be seen in phrases like "swearing on [person's name] life" or "swearing to God."

Examples of Commissive Speech Acts

Commissive speech acts are statements that commit the speaker to a specific action or decision. They can be positive or negative, such as promises or refusals, and are often presented as questions to the listener. Here are some examples:

  • "Would you like me to drive you home?"
  • "I promise I will assist you with your project."
  • "No, I cannot lend you any money."
  • "I refuse to participate in this project."
  • "If you continue playing loud music, there will be consequences."

Refusals involve the speaker's decision not to do something, while threats are used to intimidate and warn the listener of potential consequences if they do not change their behavior.

The Different Types of Commissive Speech Acts

There are several types of commissive speech acts, including:

  • Promise: A commitment to doing something
  • Vow: A more serious promise, often made in a solemn manner
  • Offer: A giving of something to the listener
  • Refusal: A decision not to agree to something
  • Threat: An expression of intent to cause harm or discomfort

Source: J. Searle. A Classification of Illocutionary Acts. 1976.

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