Performative utterances often take the form of declarative sentences with which the speaker performs the action denoted by some performative verb (e.g. promise, declare etc.). In so doing, the speaker does not describe the world but changes it.

If I told someone "screw you," am I doing a performative utterance? By saying "thank you," I am doing the action of thanking, but I'm not sure if the same can be said for "screw you." I'm not sure if "screw" can be defined as a performative verb based on the following criteria.

Performative verbs are verbs that describe actions carried out by speakers.

They are used in 1st person singular, simple present, indicative, active.

They can be combined with hereby (cf. Bublitz 2009:75f).

The main problem is the last one, where I'm not sure if "hereby" can be used with "screw." It also doesn't seem to fit the earlier statement of "In so doing, the speaker does not describe the world but changes it." Saying "screw you" doesn't seem to change the world.

  • Saying "screw you" does not mean that you are actually performing the action of screwing the addressee. In the case of thank you, or I promise X, the action is being executed by the speaker. So, screw you doesn't seem to fit any of the parts of the description that you quote, unless you have a very interesting, but non-standard, definition of screwing someone. – oerkelens Aug 13 '15 at 12:49

In fact you are using English's nearest equivalent to a third person imperative.

The origin of these utterances is in phrases such as "Damn you!". This is short for "God damn you!" which in turn is an abbreviation of "May God damn you!"

We can expand one more level because that last comes from "May God damn you to Hell."




past participle: damned

  1. (in Christian belief) be condemned by God to suffer eternal punishment in hell. "I treated her badly and I'll be damned to hell for it"

Google Dictionary

Thus "Screw you!" can be thought of as meaning, e.g.

"May Fate screw up your life." or some such. Other interpretations are possible. I've just given one plausible version.


Take the sentence,

"I hereby say, 'I screw you!'"

It's a bit unusual, but it works, I suppose. The words which are normally elided from the two-word sentence (viz., "Screw you!") could be "I say" or "I hereby say."

For example, if a person were to ask me, "So, what's your reaction to what I just said?" he could say,

"You want me to be honest with you?"

When I say, "Sure. Give me your honest reaction," he could say,

"Well, I say [I] screw you!"

Is his honest reaction a performative statement? Well, yes, in the sense that in saying "Screw you" he is performing what he said he was going to say; namely, giving you an honest reaction. There can be no doubting that his reaction is anything but honest, with an exception being an utterance which he means to be humorous, ironic, or mildly sarcastic, for example.

So where does this leave us? A little confused, perhaps? Notice, however, I've taken the liberty of "de-eliding" words which are not in your original two-word utterance. Furthermore, if there is any performative aspect in the utterance "Screw you!" it certainly is not as clear as such utterances as

  • "I promise," or

  • "I hereby swear to tell the truth," or

  • "I hereby disown you."

All the above utterances are performative in that they promise, swear, and disown by simply being declared. Moreover, the world is changed thereby.

In conclusion, the ol' "Screw you!" is performative only by implication. It contains within its two words a sentiment, if you will, which it conveys quite economically--albeit inelegantly. The world is changed thereby in that the hearer of the epithet now knows instantly and fairly accurately how you feel about him, at least at the moment he says it. Moreover, your world, vis a vis him, could forever be changed, even if he's speaking facetiously. That's why I recommend we use epithets sparingly, if at all.

  • But the action is not performed by the speaker, and is not performed by speaking. I fail to see how screw you is performative in any way. – oerkelens Aug 13 '15 at 12:51
  • @oerkelens: You may be right. However, the process of communication is pretty darn complex, and a great deal occurs when we open our mouths to speak. In a sense (but only in a sense), all language is performative in some way. Consider Kenneth Burkes "take" on all speech as an act by an agent through an agency (speech, for example) in an environment or scene. The speech-act is purposive and can be fraught with attitude, which is a sort of incipient act, or precursor to an act. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dramatism. – rhetorician Aug 13 '15 at 21:15
  • I really doubt whether "screw you", said with any attitude, can normally seen as an incipient act or precursor to the act of actually screwing the addressee. Both common meanings of the verb screw do not seem likely to be implemented by, or even actually implied by the utterance (or do you usually intend to actually have sexual relationships with the person you address a "screw you" (or also common and related "fuck you") to?) – oerkelens Aug 14 '15 at 13:37
  • @oerkelens: Again, I'm saying you are at least partially right. On the motive/attitude/speech-act side of things, however, the "Screw you!" epithet contains a sentiment, just as the longer version (viz., "I hereby say, 'I screw you!'") does. How "screwing someone" demonstrates contempt and perhaps some sort of humiliating domination (e.g., rape), I can well imagine. True enough, saying "I hereby say 'I screw you'" is not the act, but it could be an incipient act which leads to an actual act, under the "right" circumstances. Am I splitting hairs? Probably. Don – rhetorician Aug 14 '15 at 15:14

The performatives that Austin discussed were all associated with some sort of ritual. "I hereby" is a vestige, not quite on a level with launching a ship or getting married, but enough to show you mean to (e.g.) return the money/ honour the bet/ stick to your promise.

Perhaps if you make a ritual long-bacon, or add a fig or a biff on the nose, it becomes a performative. But even then I doubt if you could distinguish between a felicitous "Screw you!" and an infelicitous one.

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