Would you consider yourself to be an expressive person? If so, how do you like to express yourself? Some people may express themselves through the clothes they wear. Others may like to paint, play music, dance, etc. But one of the main ways we can express ourselves is through the language that we use! Through what linguists call a 'speech act'. 

Expressives Expressives

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    Expressives People communicating StudySmarterSpeech acts can be used as a way of communicating expressiveness. - pixabay

    So what is a speech act?

    A speech act is an utterance that has a purpose. Whenever we speak, we are also carrying out a kind of action. These 'actions' can be referred to as illocutionary acts, which are broken down into five categories: assertive, directive, commissive, expressive and declarative.

    What are expressive words in English?

    Expressive verbs are words used for the purpose of performing a certain speech act. They can be used to express either positive or negative situations, and are usually centred on the listener. Expressive verbs are more specific than basic verbs, as they are used to express particular actions.

    According to Searle and Vanderveken (1985)¹, some examples of expressive verbs include:

    - apologising, consoling, congratulating, lamenting, praising, greeting, and welcoming.

    These words are used to perform various speech acts; 'Oops, sorry, I didn't see you there', is an apology.

    Synonyms for 'expressive'

    The adjective 'expressive' has a very similar meaning to 'expressive speech acts.' We can better understand this type of speech act if we look at some synonyms for 'expressive.' Some of these are:

    • Meaningful
    • Revealing
    • Demonstrative
    • Eloquent
    • Telling
    • Emotional
    • Suggestive
    • Passionate

    What is an expressive person?

    An expressive person is someone who uses expressive language. This is done by often using expressive speech acts. We'll have a look at what these are next.

    Can we define 'expressive speech acts'?

    Expressive speech acts are utterances that are spoken to convey the speaker’s emotions and feelings about themselves and the world around them. Depending on the situation, different expressives can be used to communicate different feelings.

    What are the different types of expressive speech acts?

    According to psycholinguist Herbert Clark (1996)², there are four main types of expressive. These are as follows:

    • Thanking
    • Apologising
    • Congratulating
    • Greeting

    Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail.

    Expressive speech acts examples


    The act of thanking refers to an expression of gratitude. It is also a way of showing respect and kindness to the listener, letting them know that the speaker appreciates what they have done.

    “Thank you for helping me out with my work”

    “Thank you very much for my birthday present!”

    “Thank you for thinking of me, I really appreciate it”


    The act of apologising refers to an expression or admission of wrongdoing, showing that they regret something they have done or realise they may have caused offence or upset.

    “I’m sorry for shouting at you.”

    “I’m sorry for hurting your feelings, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

    “I apologise for getting angry, it will not happen again.”

    But, there are also other ways an apology can be used, not just to take responsibility for something wrong you have done, but also... express sympathy. For example, if someone passes away, it is not uncommon for people to say “I’m sorry for your loss” to the people who are grieving. It is a way of showing that you acknowledger their pain.


    The act of congratulating refers to the act of praising someone or joining in with their success. It is a positive way to wish someone happiness and/or celebrate their success.

    “Congratulations on your engagement!”

    “Congratulations on passing your exams!”

    “Congratulations on your new job!”


    The act of greeting refers to an expression of welcome or acknowledgment.

    “Hey, it’s lovely to see you”

    “Welcome! Please come in”

    “Morning, how’s it going?”

    But wait, that’s not all!

    There has been lots of research into the different types of expressive speech acts. Neal Norrick, an American linguist, researched further possible groups of expressive acts in his article Expressive Illocutionary Acts (1978). Norrick explored the idea that expressives can be either positive or negative and came up with nine different types of expressive acts.

    We’ve already explored thanking, apologising, congratulating and greeting … So what else did Norrick come up with?

    • Condoling

    • Deploring/censoring

    • Lamenting

    • Forgiving

    • Boasting

    Let’s go through these in more detail!


    Think of the opposite of congratulating. This refers to when the speaker sympathises with the listener and expresses sadness about a negative event.

    People often send their condolences at funerals.


    This refers to when the speaker tells the listener off for doing/saying something that upsets or angers them. It is a way for the speaker to make the listener aware that their behaviour needs to change and usually results in an apology from the listener.

    “You need to be quiet, you’re disrupting me.”

    “I find what you said offensive.”

    “I’m really upset that you did that.”


    This refers to when the speaker complains to the listener about negative things happening in their life. This may be because of something the speaker has done themselves, or because of something that someone else has done. It could be something mildly upsetting, such as having a bad day. Or, it could be something more extreme, such as losing a loved one.

    "I fell over at work today."

    "I broke my arm."

    "My cat passed away."


    This refers to when the speaker is able to stop feeling resentful towards something the listener may have said or done. It is a way for the speaker to put the past behind them and bring themselves peace, instead of holding onto grudges.

    “I forgive you for hurting me.”

    “Don’t worry, it’s okay. I know you didn’t mean it like that.”

    “Thank you for apologising, I forgive you.”


    This refers to when the speaker shows off to the listener about something they have done. It is a way of showing that they are proud or satisfied with themselves.

    “I won a competition, I’m so happy!”

    “I passed my exam, I’m so proud of myself!”

    “I just finished writing my dissertation!”

    Expressives - Key takeaways

    • Expressive verbs are words that express a particular action/feeling.
    • Expressive speech acts are utterances that convey the speaker’s emotions about themselves/the world.
    • There are four main types of expressives according to Clark: thanking, apologising, congratulating, greeting.
    • Norrick recognised those four types but also included these others: condoling, deploring, lamenting, forgiving and boasting.

    ¹ D. Vanderveken & J. Searle. Foundations of Illocutionary Logic. 1985.

    ² H. Clark. Using language. 1996.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Expressives

    What are Expressives in linguistics?

    Expressives are utterances used to convey someone's emotions about themselves and the world around them.

    What is an example of an expressive?

    An example of an expressive is, "I'm sorry I lost your pen" (apology).

    Why are expressives used in English language?

    Expressives are used as a way for a speaker to communicate their emotions and feelings about themselves and/or others to a listener.

    What is an expressive personality?

    Someone with an expressive personality will want to express aspects of themselves such as creativity or class through their actions and language. Linguistically, expressive people will often use expressive speech acts to represent their expressive nature.

    How do you use expressive in a sentence?

    The term 'expressive' is an adjective used to describe a person or action. Expressive speech acts can be used in sentences wherever you are carrying out the following actions: thanking, apologising, congratulating, or greeting.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which expressive speech act is a way of expressing gratitude?

    Which expressive speech act is a welcoming or acknowledgement?

    Who came up with the expressive speech acts: condoling, lamenting, forgiving and boasting?

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