Q&A: What is a ‘non-sequitur’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's a tough act to follow…

Q: Hey AWC, can we talk about convent gardens?

A: Do you mean “Covent Garden” – a district in London that includes the Royal Opera House (itself often simply referred to as Covent Garden)?

Q: Nope. I mean the gardens found in convents. That nuns prune trees in. With secateurs. 

A: Okay, sorry, you’ve lost us.

Q: I keep hearing my friends talk about nuns’ secateurs whenever I abruptly change the subject. And quite frankly, I’m getting very confused.

A: Ahhhh, we think you might mean “non sequiturs”.

Q: Oh! Is that a thing?

A: Yes, it is a thing. Translated from the Latin ‘it does not follow’. Macquarie Dictionary defines this further as “an inference or a conclusion which does not follow from the premises”. 

Q: Sorry, I don’t follow.

A: Okay, so there are a few examples. But the simplest one is following one piece of information with something completely unrelated. For example, “Autumn is my favourite season. I have two puppies.”

Q: Because the puppies don’t have anything to do with autumn?

A: Exactly. Consider: “Autumn is my favourite season. I have two notebooks filled with golden leaves.” Here, the second information relates to the first. It follows.

Q: I follow. But seriously, what a waste of a good notebook. I prefer to buy them and never write in them at all, just sniffing and admiring them occasionally.

A: Each to their own…

Q: And that’s it then? A non sequitur is a random statement?

A: Well, sort of – although it’s only random because of what it follows. It alone could be true, just out of place. Here’s another example. Ask us the time.

Q: What time is it?

A: We just got two puppies.

Q: Huh?

A: Exactly. It’s not a false statement, just not one that was asked for.

Q: Although, maybe they’re ‘watch dogs’ – then they’d know the time!

A: Hilarious. 

Q: So why do they happen?

A: People often say out loud only part of what they’re thinking, but forget that others cannot fill in the gaps. So you might say to a friend, “I haven’t watered my plants today” and then you remember the dead plant sitting on top of your broken microwave and follow with, “What time does the appliance shop close?”

Q: It’s just the clock I can’t get working…

A: Yeah, those microwave clocks are tricky.

Q: So, why go to all the effort of giving these things fancy names?

A: Haha, good question. Perhaps because of their literary usefulness.

Q: Oh I see! Do tell.

A: Well, the whiplash effect of non sequiturs can make them rather effective in writing – often used in drama for an unexpected jolt or in comedy for their absurdity.

Q: Examples?

A: “It was a spring day, the sort that gives people hope: all soft winds and delicate smells of warm earth. Suicide weather.” That’s from Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen.

Q: Wow okay. Got a funny example?

A: One of the more well known non sequitur characters is Orr from Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. He would talk of fixing a leak, only to next respond about eating crab apples as a child, much to everyone’s confusion.

Q: I guess you had to be there…

A: The Simpsons character Ralph Wiggum is also famous for them. A classic one can be found right here.

Q: That’s hilarious, because my cat’s breath DOES smell like cat food!

A: Anyway, the term “non sequitur” also gets thrown about often with regard to drawing false conclusions. A simple example might be: “Jerry is a great plumber. So therefore he should run for mayor.”

Q: I say go for it Jerry – follow your dreams. Drain that swamp!

A: Yes, yes, maybe so. But the way it was written didn’t really provide any logic to why you’d draw that conclusion. Being great at one thing doesn’t guarantee being great at another.

Q: Amen to that. Actually, that reminds me to see how my pastor is going with his new pasta restaurant…

A: Drawing these false conclusions often happens when it seems like there is a logical connection. An example of this might be to say that “my neighbour drives his red car fast, so therefore everyone with a red car drives fast”.

Q: Ahhh okay. But it’s true, red ones do go faster.

A: That is not true. Russia is the country with the largest land area.

Q: What?

A: Oh sorry, just throwing in a non sequitur to check you were paying attention. 

Q: Nice!

A: Another of these ‘logic fallacy’ examples is: “Sad movies make me cry. So if I’m crying right now, I must be watching a sad movie.”

Q: Not true! You could be chopping onions. Or reading your power bill.

A: Exactly. This type of “if A equals B, and B equals C, then A must equal C” false reasoning is sometimes lumped in as a “non sequitur”. Although there is a better word for them – “syllogisms”.

Q: So, to recap – “non sequitur” translates as “it does not follow” and can simply be unrelated statements OR used in literature for their jolting effect. They can also be an example of false logic.

A: That’s it. Oh, and would you like to hear one final thing about the puppies?

Q: Yes!

A: Jerry Seinfeld was born in 1954.

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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