Fuck speech acts

Elin, @elinmccready, asked what kind of speech act is expressed by “Fuck the haters.”

This seems like a good excuse to briefly introduce pragmatics, speech acts, and the cooperative principle.

Let’s start with an extremely important fact, the core truth of the linguistic area called pragmatics: All language is behaviour. All language is doing something to produce some kind of effect on some person(s). (This also means that one of the most false and disingenuous sentences in all of English is “I’m just saying,” but you knew that, didn’t you.)

OK, so if we’re doing something when was say something, WTF are we doing? It’s not always the same thing. And actually it’s never just one thing. We owe to J.L. Austin the idea that there are three general kinds of things we’re doing when speaking:

  1. Locutionary act. We’re physically saying, whispering, singing, signing, writing, whatever.
  2. Illocutionary act. We’re doing some kind of interpersonal gesture with a certain kind of intended effect. More about this below.
  3. Perlocutionary act. This is sometimes called perlocutionary effect. It’s the actual effect our act of speech has. You can intend to be reassuring, but if you instead scare the shit out of the person, the perlocutionary act is scaring the shit out of them.

When someone talks about a speech act, they normally mean the illocutionary act: not the simple saying, and not the ultimate result, but what the person is doing. Analogy: locutionary act is like “mixing ingredients, pouring into pan, putting in the oven”; illocutionary act is like “baking a cake”; perlocutionary act is like “producing a lead-like indigestible burnt lump.” (Or, you know, “producing oral delight and perceptible weight gain,” if you do it right.)

What kinds of speech acts – illocutionary acts – are there? John Searle categorized them into five general types:

  1. You’re committing to the truth of a proposition. Example: “I think you’re a fucking idiot.”
  2. You’re telling someone to do something. Example: “Get the fuck out of here.”
  3. You’re committing to a course of action. Example: “If you don’t get the fuck out of here, I swear to God I will kick your fucking ass.”
  4. You’re expressing an attitude towards the proposition, such as thanks or congratulations. Example: “Thanks for making me aware of your shitty attitude.”
  5. You’re actually making a change in legal or social state with the act – marriage vows and legal verdicts epitomize this. Example: “I’m breaking up with you.”

There are also indirect speech acts – for instance, “Fuck is it ever cold in here” said in a certain context to a certain person can be interpreted as an implied directive (“Close the fucking window already”).

Obviously there’s more going on than just the simple act named. There are many possible variations of tone. You’re always drawing on an participating in a definition of the relationship between you and the person(s) you’re addressing, for instance. You are often doing more than one thing at a time, too. (Actually, you’re always serving multiple ends, because that’s true with everything we do.) Clearly “I’m really sorry, I’m breaking up with you” is a little or a lot different (depending on tone) from “I’m breaking up with you, asshole.”

Speech acts can be particularly useful when analyzing sweariness, especially because quite often the syntax is not by itself a good key to the meaning. Consider the following sentences:

To hell with the haters.

God damn the haters.

The haters can go fuck themselves.

Fuck the haters.

These are all expressing very much the same attitude. But the first uses a prepositional phrase to imply an action involving the haters; the second is a clear imperative, interpretable as second person but really third-person (we would in normal English say something like “May God damn the haters” because we don’t have a proper third-person imperative); the third is an implied third-person imperative but expressed using a modal auxiliary for permission; the last has the apparent form of an imperative, but again, it’s not a literal second-person imperative.

All of the above sentences seem mighty uncooperative, but they’re all understood with the help of something called the cooperative principle. This was formulated by Paul Grice, and it defines the general expectations we have when we’re communicating using language. It’s why “Fuck is it ever cold in here” can be interpreted as “Close the fucking window already.” There are four maxims we generally expect people to adhere to reasonably, although we know they don’t always:

  1. Maxim of quality. Don’t say things that you believe are false or that you don’t have good evidence for. In other words, don’t lie or make shit up.
  2. Maxim of quantity. Give enough information, but don’t give superfluous information.
  3. Maxim of relation. Be relevant to whatever your topic or context is.
  4. Maxim of manner. Don’t be obscure or ambiguous; be coherent and to the point.

So, now, let’s look at “Fuck the haters” and its rough equivalents, “To hell with the haters,” “God damn the haters,” and “The haters can go fuck themselves.” The first three aren’t phrased as propositions about reality, so the maxims of quality and quantity don’t appear to come into it, except for inasmuch as they imply the existence of haters; the last one appears to be making a statement about the ability of the haters to perform autocopulation. Depending on what acts you include in “fucking themselves,” this is either trivially true for most humans or physically impossible for most humans (and thus demanding good evidence). But in the context, it is likely that a literal assertion about the autoerotic capabilities of haters will be a non-sequitur. So we will apply the third maxim: relation.

Relation is really the key here. Why are you saying this? You appear to be expressing an attitude towards the haters. You are not meaning that the haters are physically able to fuck themselves but rather that you wish they would in a more figurative sense fuck themselves (figurative uses of fuck tend to imply violence and degradation, although literal uses can include all kinds of copulation, even the most gentle). You are wishing that God would damn them, that they would go to hell. That somehow someone or something (or the fucking universe itself) would fuck them, figuratively.

As soon as we think of this as an expression of a wish that the speaker knows is literally unfulfillable, and therefore simply of an attitude of anger or deprecation, we find it readily fulfills the maxim of manner, even though it’s rather bad manners.

So, now: the speech act of “fuck the haters.” Assertive, directive, commissive, expressive, declarative?

  1. We are not asserting a truth with “Fuck the haters.” If we said “Fuck, the haters,” it could indicate that we have just detected the presence of the haters, and in that case we could call it an assertive. But there’s no comma here.
  2. We are not telling someone to fuck the haters. I mean, yes, if you were at an orgy and there were some haters there and you wanted someone to fuck them, then “Fuck the haters” would be a directive. But otherwise no.
  3. We are not saying we will fuck the haters. “Fuck the haters” doesn’t mean “I’ll fuck the haters.” It’s not a commissive.
  4. We are expressing an attitude, yes. But is this an expressive? It sure sounds expressive, although that could be a terminological equivocation. Consider a classic expressive: “Thank you.” Consider a similar expressive on the same model: “Fuck you.” The function of fuck here is like that of thank: it presents the speaker’s attitude. And if “Fuck you” is an expressive, it’s reasonable to say that “Fuck the haters” is an expressive.
  5. If, by saying “Fuck the haters,” you were to change the legal status of the haters from “unfucked” to “fucked,” it would be a declarative. It would be a sort of “Let the haters be fucked” parallel to the grand old “Let them be anathema.” But, alas, you can say “Fuck the haters” till the cows come home and it won’t change their state from unfucked to fucked. Although, really, if they’re haters, it’s because they’re fucked in the head in the first place, right?

Again, there’s a lot more than just a single simple speech act going on, of course. By saying fuck you are breaking a taboo, and thus showing that the intensity of your feeling is such that you will break a taboo to express it. You are also breaking with regular syntax – you can’t use most verbs in that way (“Excoriate the haters” or “Defeat the haters” can only be taken as second-person commands), although you can use positive expressives, such as thank as in “Thank you” and “Thank God” (but questionably “Thank the haters”) and bless as in “Bless you” and “Bless the haters.”

And then there’s the whole question of what effect you are trying to produce on your hearer(s) when you say “Fuck the haters.” That will vary by situation, and can range from calming (“Aw, fuck the haters, I think you’re great”) to incitement (“Fuck the haters, those rotten bastards! We’ll fucking show them!”) This is an endless treasure trove of investigation. I think of it as one of the truly fun parts of language. Expect to see more about it in articles by various authors here on Strong Language.

10 thoughts on “Fuck speech acts

  1. schrisomalis January 12, 2015 / 5:32 am

    This is a fantastic introduction to Austin, Grice, and pragmatics for students. The fuckery of it makes it even more appealing. I just may borrow it for my graduate class this term. Thanks!


  2. Zack January 12, 2015 / 6:42 pm

    “Bless the haters” reminds me of the American-South stock phrase “Bless [person]’s heart,” which, despite its positive denotation, is almost always used as a pejorative. It could perhaps be expanded out to “I am sure [person] meant well, but the result is a clusterfuck and they should have known better.”

    (You should imagine its being said by a little old lady who has never uttered a swear in her life and is ever so disappointed.)


  3. Lane January 12, 2015 / 8:52 pm

    I like Steven Pinker’s guess (in “The Stuff of Thought) that “fuck” filled in for “damn” in “damn you” because “damn” became weakened, so we put in the most taboo verb we can think of, even if it makes no sense. So I guess the roundabout meaning is “May god fuck you.” So it’s kind of “may God fuck the haters”, and the roundabout 3rd-person imperative after all.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Sunny Schomaker (@sgailschomaker) January 12, 2015 / 9:05 pm

    To piggyback on the last paragraph, I would also add that, once you add the conversational context, the intended/interpreted goal of “fuck the haters” may vary. There is a difference between:

    A: I don’t know if I should wear a miniskirt at my age.
    B: Fuck the haters.

    Here, what B is doing isn’t so much calming (the example given in the paragraph), as affiliating with A.

    A: I don’t know if you should wear a miniskirt at your age.
    B: Fuck the haters.

    Here, we have the reverse – B is disaffiliating with A, and the subtext behind “fuck the haters” is “fuck you”.

    Of course, this is made up data. If someone wants to provide me with recordings of “fuck the haters” being used in unscripted conversation, I would be all over that.


  5. Eric McCready January 13, 2015 / 9:36 am

    Wow. Ask a question on Twitter… Amazing. Thank you! And the analysis is nice. The Relevance story about the impossibility of fucking the haters reminds me a bit of recent work by Muffy Siegel about the meaning of “in your dreams” (which are inaccessible to the speaker by definition, so anything said is an automatic Quality-violation or perhaps Relevance). The depths of strong language …


  6. Y January 14, 2015 / 4:45 am

    I think “fuck the haters” is clearer if you compare it with “forget the haters”, which is close in meaning but uses a more direct metaphor. Like forget, fuck in this context is a verb expressing a change in mental state toward the object, unlike the primary meaning of fuck.

    In Sunny Schomaker’s examples, it looks like “fuck the haters” the subject of the imperative is the person spoken to, just like “forget the haters”. In other contexts the subject of “fuck/forget the haters” may be the speaker themself, or an unspecified subject, just as in “fuck it” or “forget it”.


  7. Ed Vanderpump July 28, 2017 / 1:10 pm

    I’m interested in change of meaning / semantic change with the f-word. How did it change from meaning sex / lovemaking, one of the most pleasurable things in life, many would say, to what happened to Gaddafi, one of the worst deaths imaginable? Was it after wars, perhaps, when rape was used as a weapon of terror? And when this was publicised – in the 20th century, perhaps, whereas it hadn’t been much discussed before? Is there any spike (ouch) in this usage after, say, Viet Nam?


  8. sesquiotic April 8, 2022 / 3:06 pm

    Note: I’ve changed the attribution of the initial question, as the original name and Twitter handle are now obsolete.


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