Definition of Non Sequitur
A non sequitur is something said that has nothing to do with what was said previously. Non sequiturs often sound a bit absurd because there is no logical leap from one statement to the next. For this purpose, non sequiturs can be either comical or confusing, or both.
The term non sequitur comes from Latin. In Latin, the phrase means “it does not follow.” The definition of non sequitur developed from this Latin meaning to encompass the conversational and literary device described above, as well as a type of in logic. When used in logic, non sequitur is problematic because someone says something that does not proceed rationally from the already given. Thus, as a literary device non sequiturs can be merely amusing, in logic they are quite problematic.
Common Examples of Non Sequitur
It is easy to find examples of non sequitur in ordinary conversations. Non sequiturs may occur when someone is not totally following a conversation and is thinking of something else. Non sequiturs can also happen when someone makes a jump in topics in their own mind without explaining the connection out loud. Thus, it may seem like there is no logical link from one topic to the next as the speaker has not explicitly stated it.
We can also find non sequitur examples in extemporaneous speech, like in debates. It is rare, however, to find an example of a non sequitur in speeches that have been written out, as generally when trying to appeal to logic a speaker will try to show all the rationale behind their thoughts and sentences. Here is a recent example of non sequitur:
“Probably in terms of the applying for the job of president, a weakness would be not really seeing myself in that position until hundreds of thousands of people began to tell me that I needed to do it. I do, however, believe in Reagan’s 11th commandment, and will not be engaging in awful things about my compatriots here. And recognizing that it’s so important, this election, because we’re talking about America for the people versus America for the government.”—Dr. Ben Carson, GOP debate 2015
Significance of Non Sequitur in Literature
Non sequitur is most often found in literature that is leans heavily on the absurd (such as Theatre of the Absurd, a movement in literature that began in Europe after World War II). In Theatre of the Absurd, playwrights were protesting the seeming lack of purpose of existence of humanity, and the breakdown of communication that occurs in this lack of purpose. These playwrights were concerned about the state of humanity after the war, and were trying to encourage the audience to pursue connections that were difficult to recuperate.
Characters will sometimes produce non sequiturs in speech if they are not thinking logically, or if they don’t fully understand an and reason falsely. Due to the fact that non sequitur examples are often a bit comical as well as strange they are quite rare in dramatic scenes. However, they could be used to show a state of mind that is temporarily altered, such as by grief or other extreme emotions.
Examples of Non Sequitur in Literature
POLONIUS: If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter that I love passing well.
HAMLET: Nay, that follows not.
(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
This is an example of non sequitur from William Shakespeare’s famous play Hamlet. Polonius is not following the trajectory of Hamlet’s argument. Hamlet has called Polonius “Jephthah,” and Polonius believes this is because Polonius loves his daughter, Ophelia. However, Hamlet is really trying to say that Polonius is as ready to sacrifice Ophelia as the Biblical character of Jephthah was willing to sacrifice his own. Therefore, Hamlet denounces Polonius’s affirmation that he loves his daughter to be a non sequitur, as does not logically follow what Hamlet is trying to say.
What did we do yesterday?
What did we do yesterday?
Why . . . (Angrily.) Nothing is certain when you’re about.
In my opinion we were here.
(looking round) You recognize the place?
I didn’t say that.
That makes no difference.
(Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett)
Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot is one of the most famous works written as part of the Theatre of the Absurd movement. In the play, the two characters of Vladimir and Estragon wait for another character, Godot, who never shows up. Most of their conversations and actions are hard to follow as, indeed, Beckett wrote them to seemingly lack any sense. As Vladimir points out in the above excerpt, “Nothing is certain when you’re about.” This could be the motto for the entire play, as nothing is ever completely certain. In this absurdist play, the lack of logic between one statement and the next is the only certainty.
“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.”
(Catch-22 by Joseph Heller)
There is much absurdity in Joseph Heller’s anti-war novel Catch-22. This is primarily to show the sheer lunacy of conducting war in the first place, and the way that war drives people mad. The main character of Yossarian is extremely annoyed when his fellow combatant Orr uses a complete non sequitur. Yossarian sees that Orr is fixing a gas leak, and when he questions Orr about it Orr responds nonsensically with a story about carrying crab apples in his cheeks. This conversation persists for a while as Yossarian tries to make sense of what Orr is saying, and ultimately is unable to derive and logic from it.
GUILDENSTERN: 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. Ninety-two coins spun consecutively have come down heads ninety-two consecutive times…and for the last three minutes on the wind of a windless day I have heard the sound of drums and flute…
(Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard)
Tom Stoppard is another famous contributor to the Theatre of the Absurd movement. The characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern first appeared in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which they are two of Hamlet’s best friends. However, they are barely featured onstage in Shakespeare’s telling, and their death is skimmed over quickly. Stoppard decided to feature them as the two main characters in his own play in which the two men struggle with absurdity and the lack of logic that governs their lives. Guildenstern’s above quote jumps from one idea to the next without sense between the sentences. He highlights the absurdity of his life when he remarks that tossing a coin ninety-two times in a row has yielded ninety-two heads, which is so improbable as to seem impossible.