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Performative Verb

A performative verb is a verb that names an illocutionary force. It is used in a performative to perform an illocutionary act having that force.

Defining the performative verb

The performative verb is a verb that is closely related to the performance of a given action. In fact, the defining feature of a performative verb is the fact that simply speaking it will itself result in an action being performed. 

For example, when a man tells his boss that he "resigns", this statement itself would achieve the action of resignation.  

This is different from other verbs. For example, if you say that you "write", then this doesn't actually make writing happen. But saying "I resign" actually makes resignation happen.  

Grammatical rules and styles

Here is an example of the performative verb being used correctly within the context of a real sentence. 

"As your mother, I hereby promise you that if you go to sleep on time this evening, you can stay up late tomorrow." 

In this sentence, "promise" is a correctly used performative verb. 

Now, here is an example of the performative verb being used incorrectly within a sentence. 

"The judge informed the defendant that he was sentenced to serve thirty hours of community service in order to make up for his crime." 

In this sentence, "sentenced" is not being used as a performative verb, because it is in the past tense and thus does not actually make an action happen.

In case you are still a little confused about the nature of the performative verb, here are a couple rules you can follow in order to make sure that you've got the hang of it. 

  1. In general, the performative verb can only be used in the present tense and spoken in the first person. This is due to the fact that it is only when these conditions are met that the utterance of the performative verb can itself make a given action happen. 
  2. A good way to test whether a verb is performative would be to see if you can insert "hereby" before the verb. For example, a judge may say "I hereby sentence you"; therefore, the verb sentence would pass the test and qualify as a performative verb. 

Performative verbs represent ritual and formality

The performative verb is closely associated with ritual, ceremony, and formality, especially useful when describing ritualistic events from major world religions. All verbs, of course, represent actions. However, the performative verb is itself an action: merely speaking it actually makes the corresponding action happen in the world.

This can only occur within a social or interpersonal context in which words are understood as having this kind of power, and in which people generally believe that the speaker is authorized to utter the performative verb that he is in fact uttering. With the performative verb, then, there is a close relationship between language and power, undergirded by the symbolic cultural system of a given people group.  

This is why the performative verb can really only be used within the present tense: it is only in the present that one can actually make a new action take place, and the performative verb is defined by its capacity to make such an action take place. In modern society, one thinks of courtrooms or weddings when it comes to the performative verb, due to the simple fact that these are the most common public ceremonies that come to mind in these times. Narrower contexts, however, are also possible, such as (for example) when one person formally apologizes to another person. 

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