Dangling Comparative

Alias: Hanging Comparative

Taxonomy: Logical Fallacy > Informal Fallacy > Ambiguity > Amphiboly > Dangling Comparative


In 2001…President Bush was accused of trying to put "more arsenic" in drinking water. In April of that year, the Democratic National Committee ran a TV ad in which a little girl asks, "May I please have some more arsenic in my water, Mommy?" And at the January 4, 2004, debate among Democratic presidential hopefuls in Des Moines, Iowa, Representative Dick Gephardt of Missouri said the Bush administration "tried to put more arsenic in the water. We stopped them from doing it."1

Analysis of the Example


A comparison is, of course, a phrase comparing two things; for instance, "Bud is taller than Lou". Adjectives, such as "tall", come in three "degrees"2:

  1. Positive: "Lou is short."
  2. Comparative: "Lou is shorter than Bud."
  3. Superlative: "Lou is the shortest member of the group."

The positive degree of an adjective can be used of just one item, but the comparative degree is always relating at least two. A dangling, or hanging, comparative is one in which one of the items being compared is missing; for example, "Bud is taller". Sometimes, in context, it's obvious what's missing: if you were just talking about Bud and Lou, it would be clear that Bud was being compared to Lou. However, when the context of the dangling comparative does not make it clear what the missing item is, the resulting comparison is ambiguous. Keeps you fresher longer


Analysis of the Example:

But by "more arsenic" Democrats did not mean "more than is in the water now"; the disagreement was over how much to reduce arsenic levels. When Bush took office he suspended a regulation that President Clinton had proposed only days before the end of his term. This last-minute regulation would have reduced the federal ceiling on arsenic in drinking water from 50 parts per billion (ppb), where it had been since 1942, to 10 ppb. … Bush administration officials considered a more flexible limit that would have allowed a limit of as high as 20 ppb in a few cases. That would have been double the limit proposed by Clinton but still a 60 percent reduction compared to the existing ceiling. … At no time did the Bush team propose to raise the limit above the existing level to allow "more arsenic."1

In this case, the comparative term was "more", and the comparison was between the amount of arsenic allowed in water as proposed by the Bush administration and―what? The Democrats were comparing the Bush proposal to their own, but by using a dangling comparative they gave the impression that Bush proposed to increase the amount of allowable arsenic, rather than in fact decrease it. How much arsenic should be allowed in drinking water is, of course, a legitimate issue for honest debate, but this was a dishonest way of formulating the issue.


  1. Brooks Jackson & Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Unspun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation (2007), pp. 32-33.
  2. Robert J. Gula, Precision: A Reference Handbook for Writers (1980), chapter 9.
  3. Jackson & Jamieson, p. 31.
  4. See: Logic Check: Dueling Comparatives, 10/26/2005.

Posted: 10/16/2023