Really couldn't resist the question title :-)

This question asks about the famous quote by Mark Twain:

Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.

which I'm sure most people here know. When I first read it I obviously interpreted the meaning as "All congressmen are idiots" - but when trying to actually reason through the construct in a comment for the question, that actually doesn't work out I find.

Let's go for a slight formalism with propositional logic:

  • I means that the person is an idiot.
  • C means that the person is a congressman.

Now Twain states that the person is an idiot so we know that I is true. Then he states C. So far so good, I ^ C. But the next sentence is: "but I repeat myself" which I can only interpret as "but the second statement doesn't add any new information to the first". So this means that I -> I ^ C (since otherwise saying C is true would add information). This can be simplified to not I v C and since we know that I is true, this means that C must be true - nothing surprising there.

So now the options are: Did I make a mistake in my reasoning? Did Mark Twain screw up in his and actually wanted the opposite order or I guess #3 did Mark Twain really want to imply that every idiot is a congressman?

  • 3
    The [logic] tag doesn't license logic notation; this is English.SE after all. Could you explain what you actually mean, please? [You're wrong in your conclusion even though the question title is correct; he was implying that every Congressman was an idiot, but I've no idea how you have arrived at your conclusion.]
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 21, 2014 at 22:18
  • 1
    Per meta.english.stackexchange.com/a/4722, please ‘never’ use 𝚖𝚘𝚗𝚘𝚜𝚙𝚊𝚌𝚎𝚍 𝚝𝚎𝚡𝚝 or ˋbackticksˋ on ELU.
    – tchrist
    Jul 21, 2014 at 22:23
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    The part that he's repeating is that you're an idiot. The second part of the statement does add information; that's you're a congressman.
    – dwjohnston
    Jul 21, 2014 at 22:23
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    @AndrewLeach It isn't difficult. It is analogous to saying "suppose you were an animal and suppose you were a cat. But I repeat myself". Clearly this is not an exact repetition as not all animals are cats. Jul 21, 2014 at 22:29
  • 3
    @Voo The problem is not the logic: we have a [logic] tag. The problem is your use of logic symbols, specifically ->, ^ and v.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 21, 2014 at 22:45

1 Answer 1


A fuller quotation is:

Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself. Simply suppose you were a member of Congress. And suppose you started-up what you believed to be your faculties, and worked out the draft of a law to cover the needs of some industry or other which you did not know anything about.

It is clear in context that the supposition Twain considered redundant was "you were an idiot", since that is the one he removes to simplify. So his intent is to state that all members of congress are idiots.

I don't believe that "I repeat myself" must be taken to mean "the second statement adds no new information". Rather, it means that the second statement re-treads ground covered by the first. It does not state that's all it does. So for me, the rest of your argument from that point does not follow and Twain has not made a mistake in his choice of words.

For example:

Suppose the road were very long. Suppose it were to span several time zones. But I repeat myself. Simply, suppose it were to span several time zones.

The structure here does not imply that I can only be repeating myself if it's true that all "very long" roads "span several time zones". I believe that Twain intended the same structure. That is to say, he intended to state that "idiot" is a necessary and obvious property of members of Congress (just as a road spanning several time zones must be very long, there being no roads circling either pole). So stating someone is a member of Congress is to repeat that they are an idiot (as well as adding further information).

If Twain meant to say that repetition is all the second statement does, then he could have said, "but I merely repeat myself", which is more precise, and would suggest that it's the second statement that can be removed.

  • 1
    I didn't think about looking up the context and correct passing of the quote, uho stupid mistake. Good analysis!
    – Voo
    Jul 22, 2014 at 13:56
  • 1
    @Voo: thanks for the question though, the research was worth it just to see "what you believed to be your faculties" ;-) Jul 22, 2014 at 14:00
  • I find the whole quote not only entertaining, but also shockingly.. modern. I mean the sentiment could have been expressed today and it would be just as true.
    – Voo
    Jul 22, 2014 at 14:10

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