Dangling phrase

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An example first: "As a voter in this election, my letterbox has overflowed with ... propaganda." (The Guardian, 18-09-03, p. 28.)

If we examine this sentence in the cold light of reason and strict grammatical rules, we see that the writer has claimed that his letterbox is entitled to vote in the election. In human terms of common sense, of course, we see that he means no such thing. He is merely saying that he himself has a vote, and that as a result his letterbox is filled with political junk mail. However, he has written carelessly. The phrase 'as a voter in this election', like most phrases in English, is automatically assigned by a hearer or reader to the nominal nearest to it. In this case, the nearest nominal is the pronoun 'I', in the possessive form my.

Our human minds are naturally quick enough, and understanding enough, to smooth over any awkward illogicalities they may meet in ordinary spoken English. But academic English - and indeed any formal writing - should be more carefully phrased. The writer here could have said, "As I am a voter in this election, my letterbox has been overflowing", or "Because it belongs to a voter in this election, my letterbox has been overflowing". Such dangling phrases are common in informal English. When a short friend says, about his chair, "Being so small, my feet dangle" we realise he means "As I am so small, my feet dangle" rather than "As my feet are so small, they dangle", which is not logical - but is what his words actually mean. In academic English, they should be less common.

Similar examples can be found all the time in the media. Can you see why the following might seem an arrogant statement for a journalist to make? "As Prime Minister, I think that Tony Blair is ..." How would you improve it?

There is a special form of the dangling phrase which is usually called the hanging participle.