The Speech Act of Hoping


Last week millions of us were glued to our televisions or computer screens as James Comey, the recently ousted FBI director, was testifying to the Senate Intelligence Committee about a conversation in the Oval Office with President Trump. Sen. James E. Risch, Republican of Idaho, was asking him questions about the meaning of Trump’s reported utterance: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

“OMG,” I texted a linguist colleague, “they are debating speech acts!”

And it was a high-stakes debate, given that how one chooses to understand the speech act involved in these two specific examples of “I hope” is potentially relevant to questions about obstruction of justice. A little dose of linguistics can help here.

Risch decided to pursue the literal meaning of Trump’s utterance in an attempt to establish that the utterance was not a directive. Having read aloud Comey’s direct quotation of the “exact words,” Risch asserted, “He did not direct you to let it go.” Comey affirmed that this was literally true: “Not in his words, no.” Risch then employed a different verb, to emphasize that Trump did not use either of these verbs: “He did not order you to let it go.” Comey affirmed that if taken literally, there was no ordering: “Again, those words are not an order.” Risch concluded, “You don’t know of anyone that’s ever been charged for hoping something, is that a fair statement?”

OK, time to back up and talk about how speech acts work and how, most importantly, the literal meaning of words is not the trump card (so to speak) in interpreting what and how speech creates actual actions — which is the meaning of speech acts.

Certainly many nonlinguists had a strong sense that some of the readings of this utterance were more plausible than others. Trevor Noah did a clever take on this exchange, noting that Risch makes it sound like Trump was “innocently hoping.” Noah explained, “He makes it sound like, like Trump was a Disney character standing out on a balcony singing, ‘I hope Mike Flynn will be free someday. I hope he’ll get away.’ That’s not what happened!” Language has subtext, Noah pointed out.

The field of pragmatics, and specifically the idea of “speech acts,” can give us a more precise frame for understanding Trump’s “I hope” than the general idea of subtext. (Deborah Tannen, in a timely opinion piece for The Washington Post, draws implicitly on the idea of speech acts when she talks about how to understand Trump’s “I hope” in terms of the metamessage.)

A “speech act” works from the premise that language doesn’t just describe the world, it can perform actions. We change the world through the actions in our words, J.L. Austin argued in his important 1962 book How to Do Things With Words. If I say, “I bet you five dollars school won’t be canceled,” there is now money on the line. If an ordained minister says, “I pronounce you husband and wife,” these two people are now married.

Those are direct, performative speech acts, and as long as the person uttering the words has the authority to place the bet or marry people, and as long as the context is appropriate, then the speech acts successfully do their work.

But in real life, many of our speech acts are not that direct. Austin usefully distinguished three different acts or forces involved in any given speech act, and I’ll focus on the first two here: (a) the “locutionary act/force,” which is the referential or literal meaning of the utterance; and (b) the “illocutionary act/force,” which is the intended or conventional meaning of the utterance in context.

Before we return to Trump’s “I hope” statements, let’s consider some everyday examples. We’re waiting at a bus stop, and I ask you, “Do you know what time it is?” Would it then be fair to say that I have asked you for the time? Conventionally, the answer is clearly yes. Most of us would respond to the question “Do you know what time it is?” with an answer that provides the time (e.g., “Four o’clock.”). But if we look at the locutionary force of my utterance — its literal or referential meaning — I did not ask you for the time. I asked if you knew the time. You could have just said, “Yes,” and left it at that. But you know better: You understand the conventions for how we ask for the time in English, and you can reasonably assume that someone at a bus stop very likely wants to know what time it is — not to suss out whether or not you possess knowledge of the time. In other words, you know my intended meaning or the illocutionary force of my question.

Let’s take another example. I am standing in front of the deli counter at the supermarket, and I say to the woman behind the counter, “I would like a pound of turkey, sliced thin.” Would it be fair to say that I have ordered a pound of turkey, sliced thin? I think we would all find it odd if the woman behind the counter just nodded and said, “How interesting that this is what you would like, in some hypothetical world. Are you ordering anything?” Literally, I did not order the turkey. If we look at the locutionary force of my speech act, I described what I would like. But in this context (the supermarket, where I am a shopper and I am talking to a person whose job involves providing sliced meats to customers), we understand that the meaning of my utterance is bound up in its illocutionary force, which is an order (of one pound of turkey, sliced thin).

Context matters. If I were on a desert island dreaming about food I wanted, and I said, “I would like a pound of turkey, sliced thin,” then we would understand that in this context, my utterance is not a directive. Its illocutionary force in this context is more like a statement of a wish.

With that, let’s return to Trump’s words: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” In the context of the Oval Office, with no one else there, Trump has the institutional and situational authority that would allow a directive to begin using the less direct form “I hope.” No speech act is only its locutionary force when it comes to how and what it means in context. With much lower stakes, remember me standing in front of the deli counter describing what I “would like.”

Let’s have the debate on reasonable terms. No speech act is completely unambiguous, as Robin Tolmach Lakoff points out in an important piece on Trump’s “I hope” in the Harvard Business Review. But it is most certainly not far-fetched (as Tannen and Lakoff also argue), especially in the context that Comey described, to believe that the locutionary force of Trump’s words (a hope) could and would be different from the illocutionary force (a directive). And clearly Comey took it as such. When Sen. Angus King, the Maine independent, asked directly, “When a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like, I hope or I suggest or- or would you, do you take that as a- as a- as a directive?”* “Yes,” answered James Comey.


* Thanks to Mark Liberman for these transcriptions, included in his June 9 post on Language Log, “Implicatures on Capitol Hill.”

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