When we are asked about the function of language, it is natural to reply that we use language to communicate ideas. This is, however, only one of the purposes for which we use language. Other purposes become obvious as soon as we look at the ways in which our language actually works. Adding up a column of figures is a linguistic activity—though it is rarely looked at in this way—but it does not communicate any ideas to others. When I add the figures, I am not even communicating anything to myself: I am trying to figure something out. A look at our everyday conversations produces a host of other examples of

1. When an actor on a stage says lines such as “To be or not to be, that is the question,” does the actor perform a linguistic act?

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2. When someone hums (but does not sing) the “Star-Spangled Banner,” does she perform a linguistic act? Why or why not?

3. Can a speaker mispronounce a word in a sentence without performing any linguistic act? Why or why not?

Discussion Questions

language being used for different purposes. Grammarians, for example, have divided sentences into various moods, among which are:

Indicative: Barry Bonds hit a home run.

Imperative: Get in there and hit a home run, Barry!

Interrogative: Did Barry Bonds hit a home run?

Expressive: Hurray for Barry Bonds!

The first sentence states a fact. We can use it to communicate information about something that Barry Bonds did. If we use it in this way, then what we say will be either true or false. Notice that none of the other sentences can be called either true or false even though they are all meaningful.


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