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Non Sequitur

A non sequitur is a statement that asserts and concludes something that’s obviously absurd and false.

Non sequiturs do not follow basic fundamentals of logic. They are everyday sayings and conclusions that are illogical, and usually used for comedic purposes. This technique is commonly found in theatre and intentionally comedic literary works, television shows, and films. 

Non Sequitur pronunciation: nahn sek-wi-tur

 

Definition and Explanation of Non Sequitur 

“Non sequitur” is a Latin phrase that translates to “it doesn’t follow,” or “not” and “to follow.” A non sequitur occurs when there is a clear difference between an idea and the conclusion that’s drawn from it. When a non sequitur is used in conversation, those listening will likely find themselves confused by the speaker’s assertions and conclusion. The phrase may lack meaning altogether. 

Some of the best examples of non sequiturs are two-part statements in which a conclusion is drawn from an unrelated assertion. For example: “They all own houses. They must be religious” or “She ran a race successfully. She must be great at sculpture.” These two statements do not relate to one another. The conclusion drawn has nothing to do with the initial idea. 

 

5 Types of Non Sequiturs 

  1. Fallacy of the undistributed middle: used when a logical argument that relies on deductive reasoning is poorly distributed. For example, “All men are mortal. All plants are mortal. Therefore, all plants are men.” 
  2. Affirming the consequent: a true statement is followed by an invalid conclusion but when the two clauses are switched, this statement makes sense. For example, “If it snowed today, then there’s going to be snow on the front lawn.” This is not always going to be true. But, if the sentences are switched to “There’s snow on the front lawn so it must’ve snowed today,” then it becomes true. 
  3. Denying the antecedent: occurs when an if/then statement suggests that if one thing is false so another statement must be. For example, “If she hits me, then she’s a bully. She didn’t hit me today, so she’s not a bully.” 
  4. Affirming a disjunct: occurs when the speaker assumes that because one statement is true another must be false. For example, “To be a dancer, you have to be either very talented or in very good shape. She’s in very good shape so she must not be talented.”
  5. Denying a conjunct: occurs when the first statement asserts that one of the following statements is false and the other must be true. For example, “He’s not both overweight and underweight. He’s not underweight. Therefore, he’s overweight.” 

 

Examples of Non Sequiturs 

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller 

Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s famed war satire, includes several interesting examples of no sequiturs. The novel feeds off the insanity of war in an attempt to make an anti-war statement. Heller does not hold back from making it clear throughout his character’s mental state that they’re suffering. Take a look at these lines as an example: 

What are you doing?” Yossarian asked guardedly when he entered the tent, although he saw at once.

“There’s a leak in here,” Orr said. “I’m trying to fix it.”

“Please stop it,” said Yossarian. “You’re making me nervous.”

“When I was a kid,” Orr replied, “I used to walk around all day with crab apples in my cheeks. One in each cheek.

In this passage, the main character, Yossarian, is irritated when Orr uses a non sequitur. He tries to make sense of what Orr said but is unable to. 

 

Hamlet by William Shakespeare 

Shakespeare’s body of work contains many interesting literary devices and this example of a non sequitur is no different. Polonius says the first line of the text as he tries to understand Hamlet’s argument. The two confuse one another with who they’re referring to and what’s going to happen in the future. Hamlet ends up denouncing Polonius’s suggestion that he loves his daughter as not “follow[ing]” what Hamlet said. 

Polonius: If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter that I love passing well.

Hamlet: Nay, that follows not.

Read poetry from William Shakespeare.

 

Non Sequitur Fallacy 

Many logical fallacies can be categorized as non sequiturs due to the incorrect assumptions they make and the conclusions they draw. Since a “fallacy” is defined as a mistaken belief based on an unsound argument, it’s clear how the two are often related to one another. Someone might make the conclusion that it’s sunny outside after seeing their family member return home without an umbrella. While this could be true, it is just as likely that it’s overcast. 

 

Non Sequiturs in Comedy 

Non sequiturs are used in comedy to great effect due to their inherent absurd construction and assertions. They are often able to make the audience laugh or at least lighten the overall tone of a passage. The strangeness and surprising nature of some non sequiturs can define a character’s understanding of the world or change the audience’s perception of the world the writer/writers have created. A non sequitur joke doesn’t usually have any reasonable explanation or purpose. Gary Larson’s series of The Far Side cartoons are a great source of non sequiturs, as are contemporary stand up routines and ‘late night’ shows like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. 

 

Why Do Writers Use Non Sequitur? 

Writers use non sequiturs in order to entertain, amuse, and confuse the audience. When a reader stumbles upon a piece of dialogue in which a character has used a non sequitur they should be immediately aware of what’s happened but unsure why. This should, in theory, be interesting. Even more so, if one particular character continues to use non sequiturs when they speak. That being said, it’s easy enough to muddle the text so much with non sequiturs that it’s no longer pleasurable to read. 

 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Pathetic Fallacy: used to describe the attribution of human emotions and actions onto non-human things found in nature.
  • Red Herring: is a fallacy that introduces something irrelevant to a larger narrative.
  • Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.
  • Satire/Satirical Comedy: used to analyze behaviors to make fun of, criticize, or chastise them in a humorous way.
  • Aphorism: short, serious, humorous, and philosophical truths about life.

 

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