While reading last weekend, I came across three examples of common usage problems. I have written about these before, and I probably will again. I have altered the examples a bit in the hopes no one will be embarrassed by them.

While reading last weekend, I came across three examples of common usage problems. I have written about these before, and I probably will again. I have altered the examples a bit in the hopes no one will be embarrassed by them.

“Minority children drown at higher rates then white children.”

“Then” should be “than.” I continue to be surprised at how prevalent this confusion is.

“Than,” which rhymes with “fan,” is the correct word when making comparisons of quantity or degree. The need for “than” is usually signaled by a word “in the comparative degree,” such as “more” or “less,” “greater” or “fewer,” or adjectives ending in “-er,” like “taller,” “smarter,” “faster” and so on:

“I miss you more than you can imagine.”

“You may talk louder than everybody else, but that doesn’t mean you’re right.”

“She’s much smarter than I am.”

“Then,” which rhymes with “when,” tells us that something comes after something else:

“Elvis made a brief appearance and then left the building.”

“The president will talk first and then the House speaker.”

It also can be used “with conjunctive force” for “in that case”:

“If it doesn’t rain, then I’ll mow the lawn.” (Notice that this also maintains the before and after aspect.)

A line in Bob Dylan’s song “My Back Pages” uses both correctly:

“Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

“Police did not say what or whom drew the suspect to Chicago.”

“Whom” should be “who.” Why?

The entire clause — the part that comes after “say” — is the object of “say.” The pronoun must reflect its function within that clause. And within the clause, the verb “drew” has the object “suspect,” and its subject is “what or who.”

In such cases, it’s often helpful to replace “who” or “whom” with another pronoun to confirm whether a subject or an object is needed. For example, you would say “she drew the suspect to Chicago,” not “her drew the suspect to Chicago.” At least, I hope you would.

“Whom” would be correct in this sentence:

“Police did not say whom they suspect.” (They suspect “him,” not “he”).

“The state’s failure to make timely payments skew the results.”

“Skew” should be “skews,” and the issue is agreement.

The verb should agree with the subject. The subject is not the immediately preceding plural “payments,” it’s the earlier appearing singular “failure.”

Writers need to watch out for this false attraction of the verb to the nearest noun, because the verb can only have a meaningful relationship with the subject, even when it’s far away.

Yes, words can stray, too.

Punctuation Station

(The station had been closed temporarily for inventory, but it has reopened.)

The comma is a versatile punctuation mark, but it shouldn’t be asked to replace a semicolon or a period. This can result in a type of run-on sentence sometimes called a “comma splice.” Here’s an example:

“He has been a member of the union for 10 years, his brother joined this summer.”

A comma isn’t strong enough to hold two independent clauses together. Possible fixes include replacing the comma with a semicolon or inserting the word “and” before “his.”

Contact Barry Wood at bwood@rrstar.com or read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/woodonwords/.