How linguistics can help

Here’s a quote from Stanley Fish writing on the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution:

“In short, they wanted to protect the expression of ideas, but not expressions like “incitement to riot” and “treason,” which are indistinguishable from action.”

In linguistics, a type of verb which, when uttered, actually does something rather than labeling it is called a ’performative’. An example is, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” The word pronounce is a performative as long as the person saying it is vested with the authority to marry people.

So imperatives might be separated from hortatory subjunctives, “Storm the building!” from “Let’s storm the building!” or “We ought to storm the building.”

Illocutionary acts seem to be a broader category with verbs like “I promise….” fitting in here. Apparently, this whole realm of semantics has been muddied and I won’t bother now to try to unravel it. I’m still working on the middle voice concept.

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