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Philosophy 103: Introduction to Logic
Common Forms and Functions of Language

Abstract: The informative, expressive, and directive purposes of language are distinguished from  the types of English sentences. 

I. Three Basic Functions are generally noted: there is perhaps nothing more subtle than language is, and nothing has as many different uses.
A. Without a doubt, identifying just these three basic functions is an oversimplification, but an awareness of these functions is a good introduction to the complexity of language .
B. The Functions of Language (i.e., its purpose; what it does; its uses)
1. Informative language function: essentially, the communication of information.
a. The informative function affirms or denies propositions, as in science or the statement of a fact..
b. This function is used to describe the world or reason about it (e.g.., whether a state of affairs has occurred or not or what might have led to it).
c. These sentences have a truth value; that is, the sentences are either true or false (recognizing, of course, that we might not know what that truth value is).  Hence, they are important for logic.
2. Expressive language function: reports feelings or attitudes of the writer (or speaker), or of the subject, or evokes feelings in the reader (or listener).
a. Poetry and literature are among the best examples, but much of, perhaps most of, ordinary language discourse is the expression of emotions, feelings or attitudes.
b. Two main aspects of this function are generally noted: (1) evoking certain feelings and (2) expressing feelings.
c. Expressive discourse, qua expressive discourse, is best regarded as neither true or false. E.g., Shakespeare's King Lear's lament, "Ripeness is all!" or Dickens' "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness…" Even so, the "logic" of "fictional statements" is an interesting area of inquiry.
3. Directive language function: language used for the purpose of causing (or preventing) overt action.
a. The directive function is most commonly found in commands and requests.
b. Directive language is not normally considered true or false (although various logics of commands have been developed).
c. Example of this function: "Close the windows."  The sentence "You're smoking in a nonsmoking area,"  although declarative, can be used to mean "Do not smoke in this area."
II. It is rare for discourse just to serve only one function; even in a scientific treatise, discursive (logical) clarity is required, but, at the same time, ease of expression often demands some presentation of attitude or feeling—otherwise the work might be dull..
A. Most ordinary kinds of discourse is mixed. Consider the following example. Suppose you want your listeners to contribute to the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
B. There are several possible approaches:
1. Explain the recent breakthroughs in the scientist's understanding of the disease (informative) and then ask for a contribution (directive).
2. Make a moving appeal (expressive) and then ask for a contribution (directive).
3. Command it (directive).
4. Explain the good results (informative), make a moving appeal (expressive), and then ask (directive).
5. Generally speaking, step 3 (specifically stating that which is desired as outcome) is the least effective means.  Usually, just making a moving appeal is the most effective for the general population; explaining the recent research is the most effective for an educated audience. Asking for the contribution is often not necessary, since the prospective contributor surmises this step.
C. Several other uses of language deserve mention.
1. The ceremonial--(also ritual language use) probably something quite different from simply mixing the expressive and directive language functions because performative aspects are included as well. Example: "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together to witness the holy matrimony of …." 
2. Performative utterances: language which performs the action it reports. For example, "I do" in the marriage ceremony and the use of performative verbs such as "accept," "apologize," "congratulate," and "promise." These words denote an action which is performed by using the verb in the first person—nothing more need be done to accomplish the action.
3. Phatic language: "Elevator talk" and street-corner conversations accomplishing a social task.  Note the subtle transition from vocal behavior to body language from saying for example, "Hi" or "How are you?" to a nod or a wave of the hand.
4. Most of the examples we have been talking about are not merely of academic interest, even though we cannot take time out to trace the far reaching consequences. (E.g.,  in law, when a speaker is charged "with inciting to riot," the prosecution must maintain he was using the directive language function, while the defense will probably argue that the speaker was only expressing his feelings. Also, performative utterances are not normally subject to hearsay rules since they imply an action taken.)
III. The Forms of Language (types of sentences) and the dangers of identifying form with function in the use of language.
A. Much discourse serves all three functions--one cannot always identify the form with the function. Consider this chart for the following possibilities. But note that context often determines the purpose of an utterance.  "The room is cool" might be used in different contexts as informative (an observation), expressive (how one feels at the moment), or directive (to turn on the heat).
Usual Function /

Sentence Type







assertion /


The room is cool. I had a nice time. I would like some coffee.
question /


But isn't this room 222A? Isn't that great? Don't you want to help me?
command /

imperative /

Read pages 1-10 for the test. Have a nice day. Shut the windows.
exclamation /


The universe is bounded! I'm really glad! It's late!
B. The importance of the differentiation of functions is shown by recognizing that the correct evaluation of a passage requires a knowledge of the functions relevant to the situational context.
1. A person who says to the waiter, "I would like a cup of coffee," is not just reporting a psychological state of affairs. I.e., it would be inappropriate for the waiter to respond with, "Speaking of things one would like, I'd rather have a BMW."
2. Other things being equal, a biology text is predominately informative, a novel is predominately expressive, but a logic or mathematics text is mostly directive.

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