What is a Non-Sequitur?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The word non-sequitur is derived from a Latin phrase meaning "it does not follow." There are two different connotations of this term: one can be found in the philosophical world of logic, while the other is a literary device based on an illogical premise. Some legal arguments presented in court rely on a logical non-sequitur, while a number of comedies and jokes depend on the illogical for success.

Some comics rely on non-sequitur jokes that depend on the illogical for success.
Some comics rely on non-sequitur jokes that depend on the illogical for success.

In the sense of pure logic, a non-sequitur begins with the presentation of two or more statements called premises. Premise A could be "God is love." Premise B could be "Love is blind." Premise C states "Ray Charles is blind." The non-sequitur conclusion based on these premises would be "Therefore, Ray Charles is God."

Each of the premises could be considered true, at least philosophically, but the outcome doesn't work. When the conclusion is not supported logically by the preceding premises, it is said to be a non-sequitur, even if it is true.

Both the prosecution and the defense in a court case may use this form of non-sequitur logic to guide a jury towards a specific conclusion. The prosecutor may argue that the crime took place in an architectural firm. The defendant is an architect at that firm. Therefore, the defendant must have committed the crime.

The conclusion that the defendant committed the crime would be a logical non-sequitur. In reality, the location of the crime scene may be irrelevant, and the defendant is not necessarily the only architect working for the firm. The defense attorney could argue that the prosecution's argument is invalid based on this conclusion.

In a literary sense, a non-sequitur can be any unexpected response to a set of predictable circumstances. It could also be a deliberately illogical response offered for comedic effect. The British comedy troupe Monty Python often uses non-sequiturs to bring their sketches to an abrupt end.

Characters in absurdest plays may hold entire conversations consisting of one non-sequitur line after another: "I made pancakes this morning." "Oh, do you think it might rain?" "Only if a dingo ate my baby." "Ran out of wallpaper paste again, eh?" The humor lies in the complete unpredictability that this form provides.

Many jokes also rely on a non-sequitur ending, although the audience may have to abandon all hopes of linear thought to understand them. A non-sequitur works best when it does not follow the predicted course of the script at all. The statement does not have to be completely absurd in order to be funny, but it does have to go against the audience's expectations. Two gangsters involved in a tense stand-off could suddenly decide to run away and get married, for example. This would be an effective use of non-sequitur, since the audience would have expected a cliched ending, such as the police breaking down the door. Comedy sketch shows use this type of endings quite often, especially when a more logical ending would not be possible.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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