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I need a word to describe a situation where someone is given two or more conflicting rules or requirements, which contradict each other making it impossible to comply with all of the rules at once.

Here is an example similar to what I have in my workplace:

  • The report must contain 10 sections.
  • Each section must appear on a different page.
  • The report may be no more than 2 pages in length.

Example sentence: The requirements for preparing the report presents a Catch-22 for employees.

Catch-22 appears to be the correct word for this scenario, but also seems informal. Is there a much more formal word, even perhaps a Latin term for this king of logical fallacy?

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    It's a contradiction. Or do you want something more specific? Nov 9, 2019 at 16:14
  • Catch-22 rather means that you can do anything you decide to. Provided it gets the boss's approval. IE there is no escape from a prescribed course of action. Your example gives an impossible task: there is no possible prescribed course of action. Nov 9, 2019 at 16:41
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    It's a specific kind of paradox. I think that's as close as you will get to an alternative.
    – Joachim
    Nov 9, 2019 at 16:44
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    Make the report 5 pages wide and 2 pages long.
    – Jim
    Nov 9, 2019 at 19:16

3 Answers 3

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Your question is an interesting one. The simplest answer is that the list of instructions, as set out, are mutually contradictory. It is not an example of a Catch-22 rule. It relates to a rule, according to which military servicemen on active service are entitled to be relieved of missions (in the novel it is bomber missions) on the basis of mental incapacity. The original Catch-22 in the novel of that name [Ch.5 page 56] is as follows:-

There was only one catch that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for ones safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was to ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to, but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to.

A brilliant paragraph from one of the most brilliant satirical novels of my generation. The catch is in effect a let-out codicil to the rule, which invalidates the rule itself, and leaves the appellant going round in a futile circle.

Your example is not really a catch-22. Rather, it is

self-defeating

It does not carry you round in an endless circle. It is certainly not brilliant. It has two mutually contradictory instructions. You cannot obey instruction two without violating instruction three and vice versa.

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  • A Catch 22 doesn't only relate to military personnel (not) being excused from further missions, there are a number of other variations in the book, some of which are less circular (e.g., "Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing."), but in any case the expression has come to be used more broadly since the book. If the OP's example rules have been deliberately set up that way I'd say Catch-22 applies, otherwise I'd just call them self-contradictory.
    – nnnnnn
    Nov 10, 2019 at 2:33
  • @nnnnnn Yes, I agree. And thank you for reminding of the wider use in a great novel I read more decades ago than I care to admit. However, the unique idea behind the Catch-22 is a proviso cunningly designed by the authorities to render an official right or benefit illusory. The genius is in this idea. You are officially entitled to some benefit, except that the very step you have to take in order to claim it annuls or disproves the entitlement. If such a thing happens, call it what it is: a Catch-22!
    – Tuffy
    Nov 10, 2019 at 16:58
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One phrase for a Catch-22 given in Lexico is

double bind
NOUN

A situation in which a person is confronted with two irreconcilable demands or a choice between two undesirable courses of action.

The result was a double bind: a framework in which women's access to citizenship came through the family and a deeply-rooted image of women in the family as incapable of citizenship.

So your sentence can be

The requirements for preparing the report presents a double bind for employees.

But I don't think the situation you describe is really a Catch-22 or bouble-bind, more of an impossibility to comply with.

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  • I actually think double bind is the right word for this situation. Nov 10, 2019 at 10:45
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It's a specific kind of paradox. I think that's as close as you will get to an alternative. – Joachim Nov 9, 2019 at 16:44

Paradox:

OED

2.a. An apparently absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition, or a strongly counter-intuitive one, which investigation, analysis, or explanation may nevertheless prove to be well-founded or true.

a1716 R. South Serm. Several Occasions (1744) XI. 127 If you will admit the paradox, it makes a man do more than he can do.

1956 E. Fromm Art of Loving ii. 21 In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two.

1990 Ess. in Crit. xl. 283 The paradox that spontaneity of expression demanded premeditated art was well understood.

MW

2a: statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true

b: a self-contradictory statement that at first seems true.

c: an argument that apparently derives self-contradictory conclusions by valid deduction from acceptable premises.

Lit Charts

Catch-22 is founded upon a specific “catch,” or logical paradox, introduced in a conversation between Doc Daneeka and Yossarian.

I could be argued that the "Catch-22" is an equivocation as it relies upon two different levels/types of madness.

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