Have You Ever?

During lunch, you’re chatting with your friends about the latest blockbuster movie that came out. All of you are really excited to see it. The reviews are great, your favorite actors are in it, and the trailer looks awesome. Someone suggests that you catch the Saturday evening showing as a group. Before you can chime in on how that’s a great idea, a voice pipes up, “What did you think of that math test on Monday?” The conversation quickly gets diverted to the difficulty of derivatives, and those Saturday plans never get finalized before the lunch bell rings.

The Explanation

When your friend brought up the math exam, they said a non sequitur, which means that their statement doesn’t match up with the rest of the conversation. It’s a new topic clumsily inserted into the conversation.

Definition of Non Sequitur

A non sequitur is a statement that is not clearly related to the previous topic of conversation or writing. As a logical fallacy, it is an inference that does not follow from the original premise. 

The History

Non sequitur is a Latin phrase that means “it does not follow.” It was first popularized in the 1500s as a type of logical fallacy. Over time, its definition was broadened until non sequitur also became a type of rhetorical device instead of just a flawed type of philosophical argument.

Using It

Nowadays, you can find examples of non sequiturs everywhere – in the books you read, the debates you listen to, in the movies you watch, etc. It’s important to remember that non sequiturs aren’t inherently bad. In fact, they can be used quite effectively in comedy routines. Truly absurd ones can get a crowd laughing in seconds. Authors regularly use non sequiturs not only as a quick gag but also to establish character traits. If a character commonly uses non sequiturs, they might be unfocused and prone to daydreaming or might not be that clever. Thus, non sequiturs have their place in the entertainment industry.

However, one place non sequiturs don’t belong is in critical thinking. When arguing a point or trying to explain a subject, non sequiturs hinder communication. The connection between your statement and the previous conversation topic may be obvious to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s clear to everyone else. In our movie example, maybe your friend brings up the math test because their parents won’t let them go out unless they got a good grade. Your friend asks everyone what they thought of the math test because you guys tend to get similar grades. By judging how well everyone else thinks they did on the exam, your friend can figure out how likely it is they can go to the movies. There’s a connection between the Saturday night movie plans and the math test, but since it wasn’t articulated, the question becomes a non sequitur.

Non sequiturs can be especially dangerous when used by those in power. Political candidates sometimes use non sequiturs to “prove” their point without providing any facts. Non sequiturs aren’t always as easy to spot as the movie example. Quite often, they can sound almost like a valid argument, which is precisely why it’s so important to identify non sequiturs. They can either be dangerous or funny and clever, depending on how you use them.

    Learn More

    1. Bennett, Bo Ph.D. Logically Fallacious: The Ultimate Collection of Over 300 Logical Fallacies (Academic Edition). Archieboy Holdings, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-4566-0752-4.
    2. Hindes, Steve. Think for Yourself!: An Essay on Cutting Through the Babble, the Bias, and the Hype, pp. 84-86. Fulcrum Publishing, 2005. ISBN: 1-55591-539-6.
    3. LiteraryDevices Editors. “Non sequitur – Examples and Definition of Non Sequitur.” Literary Devices, 2017. LiteraryDevices.net
    4. “Non sequitur, n”. OED Online, Oxford University Press, 2019. Oed.com

    Think Further

    1. When can it be most harmful to use a non sequitur? Most beneficial?
    2. Think of a time when you recently used a non sequitur. Why did you use it? Were you aware that you were using a non sequitur at the time?
    3. See how many non sequiturs you can spot in your daily life. Where do you find them used most often?

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