Non Sequitur Definition
In literature, a non sequitur (nahn SEK-wit-ur) is a statement or conclusion that does not logically arise from the thought that precedes it. Writers commonly utilize non sequiturs to heighten the comedic elements of a literary work, especially in theatrical plays and humorous writing. They commonly serve as comedic transitions, acting as purposefully awkward ways to change the subject or mood or signal a shift in the plot or conversation. Outside of literature, non sequiturs are mostly known as statements that seem to come unexpectedly.
The word non sequitur stems from the Latin phrase meaning “it does not follow.” The first recognized use of a non sequitur dates to 1540.
Uses and Types of Non Sequitur
Non sequiturs appear frequently in literature and written dialogue. They’re an easy way to inject humor into a text, change the topic of conversation or the trajectory of a plot, or make a bold statement that requires anything from a creative deduction to a massive leap in logic.
Non sequiturs were especially popular among playwrights of the theatre of the absurd, an era in dramatic writing that explored life’s idiosyncrasies, contradictions, and complexities through irrational and illogical language. For instance, in Tom Stoppard’s frenetic play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the title characters ramble in non sequitur after non sequitur. Here is a brief passage:
This made for a kind of harmony and a kind of confidence. It related the fortuitous and the ordained into a reassuring union, which we recognized as nature. The sun came up about as often as it went down, in the long run, and a coin showed heads about as often as it showed tails. Then a messenger arrived. We had been sent for. Nothing else happened.
Non sequiturs also appear in casual, everyday conversation. For instance, a person who experienced a bad reaction to a medication might say, “I had nasty side effects from that medicine, so doctors shouldn’t prescribe it to anybody.” This conclusion is obviously illogical, since not everyone will experience the same side effects.
In the legal system, a non sequitur is an illogical conclusion drawn based on previously presented information. One famous example comes from the O.J. Simpson murder trial and a pair of gloves: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
Extemporaneous speech comes with a higher risk of non sequiturs, as a speaker making off-the-cuff comments attempts to explain the rationale behind their thoughts, even if such rationale is haphazard. In this regard, non sequiturs are prevalent among politicians. For instance, Donald Trump gave a non sequitur-laden interview with The New York Times in 2017, at one point saying: “They’ve won five wars where the armies that went against them froze to death. It’s pretty amazing. So, we’re having a good time. The economy is doing great.”
Non Sequiturs as Logical Fallacies
In logic and philosophy, a logical fallacy is an argument that employs faulty reasoning. Non sequiturs are classified as logical fallacies because faulty reasoning is applied to reach conclusions that are inconsistent with the supplied information. There are several different types of non sequiturs that also qualify as logical fallacies.
- Affirming the consequent is when a true statement is followed by an invalid conclusion, and the statement’s converse is also true. For example: “The street in front of her house is wet, so it must have rained earlier.” By swapping the two pieces of this statement, it would read: “If it rained earlier, the street in front of her house would be wet.” This makes a conditionally true statement. Leaving it as is, however, represents a logical fallacy because there are things other than rain that can make a street wet. Therefore, the conclusion is not valid.
- Affirming the disjunct is a situation when the speaker/writer assumes that because one statement is true, another must be false—even if both are correct. For example: “To be a movie star, you have to be beautiful or well-connected. Julia Roberts is beautiful. Therefore, she is not well-connected.”
- Denying the antecedent usually occurs when an if/then (or therefore) statement erroneously concludes that when the if part of the statement is untrue, the then/therefore part must also be untrue. For instance: “If it meows, it is a cat. It does not meow. Therefore, it is not a cat.”
- Denying the conjunct is a statement in which the first premise says that at least one of the two conjuncts is false and concludes that the other conjunct must then be true. For example: “He is not both a Republican and a Democrat. He is not a Republican. Therefore, he is a Democrat.”
- A fallacy of the undistributed middle is when the middle term of a syllogism—a logical argument that relies on deductive reasoning—is not distributed in at least one of the statement’s other premises, such as: “All human beings are mortal. All dogs are mortal. Therefore, all dogs are human beings.”
Non Sequiturs in Comedy
Non sequiturs are abundant in comedic works because their innately nonsensical nature elicits laughs or, at the least, a spirit of lightheartedness. Take, for example, Ralph Wiggum, a supporting character on The Simpsons. Ralph is practically a walking non sequitur: always stringing together disjointed thoughts, replying to questions with nonsensical answers, and speaking in hilarious word salads. In one episode, Lisa Simpson and her rival-turned-friend Allison invite Ralph to play anagrams with them; in lieu of an answer, Ralph replies, “My cat’s breath smells like cat food.” In another episode, Ralph recounts his summer vacation: “…then, the doctor told me that both my eyes were lazy! And that’s why it was the best summer ever!”
Non Sequitur is also the name of a long-running comic strip. Created by Wiley Miller, it follows the escapades of the Pyle family and the other citizens of Whatchacallit, Maine. Wiley likely chose the title because of the humor and satire associated with the term—two elements that are front and center in the comic.
Generational humor, specifically millennial humor, often makes use of non sequiturs. For instance, millennial humor tends to utilize a lot of randomness, which is just another way of saying it relies on a lot of non sequiturs. As a result, some consider the millennial sense of humor to be increasingly surreal and borderline absurd. You can see examples of this humor on the shows Family Guy, Rick and Morty, and The Eric Andre Show.
Writers Known for Non Sequiturs
- Edward Albee, The American Dream, Three Tall Women
- Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Happy Days
- Eugene Ionesco, The Bald Soprano
- Harold Pinter, The Room, The Birthday Party
- Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Examples of Non Sequiturs in Literature
1. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
Beckett wrote his classic play almost exclusively in non sequiturs. The characters of Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for a man named Godot to appear. As they pass the time, they have a series of nonsensical conversations:
VLADIMIR: “Consult his family…”
ESTRAGON: (anxious) “And we?”
ESTRAGON: “And why would he shout?”
VLADIMIR: “At his horse. Silence.”
ESTRAGON: (violently) “I’m hungry!”
VLADIMIR: “Do you want a carrot…”
VLADIMIR: “I might have some turnips…”
VLADIMIR: “Oh pardon! I could have sworn it was a carrot…”
ESTRAGON: (chewing) “I asked you a question.”
ESTRAGON: “Did you reply?”
VLADIMIR: “How’s the carrot?”
The play is a cornerstone of the theatre of the absurd, and while it is certainly open to interpretation, it seems to reflect the inherent emptiness and meaninglessness of life. In the above exchange, the two characters bat non sequiturs back and forth: ignoring questions, answering questions with unrelated questions, and making comments that don’t logically stem from anything that came prior.
2. Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted
In Kaysen’s memoir, she documents the time she spent in a psychiatric hospital as a young woman:
It was a spring day, the sort that gives people hope: all soft winds and delicate smells of warm earth. Suicide weather. Daisy had killed herself the week before.
This passage has a glaring non sequitur that forces a narrative transition from hopeful to bleak. After describing the advent of spring and the loveliness of the wind and earth, Kaysen abruptly calls it “suicide weather.” Logically, there’s no such thing as suicide weather, but it provides the right change of mood to describe Daisy’s death and the subsequent atmosphere in the hospital.
3. Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Heller’s novel is a satirical look at World War II through the eyes of an antihero Army captain named John Yossarian. Another character, a bomber pilot named Orr, speaks mainly in non sequiturs, much to the confusion of his fellow soldiers:
“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, Orr attempts to fix a leaky tent, and when Yossarian asks him to stop, he responds with the non sequitur about stuffing crab apples in his cheeks as a child.
Further Resources on Non Sequiturs
TV Tropes has a detailed list of non sequiturs in tv, movies, animation, and popular culture.
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers an in-depth look at various types of logical fallacies, including non sequiturs.
The Hartford Courant discusses how Donald Trump’s speech “flummoxes” linguists, especially his rampant use of non sequiturs, repetition, and asides.
A CSUN website provides a primer on how to use logical fallacies, like non sequiturs, in debates.
Colleen Abel delves into the “major moment” non sequiturs are having in modern poetry.