What’s the difference between grammar, punctuation, and mechanics?

The title of today’s post is actually one of my blog’s categories, shown at the lower right-hand side of the screen.  Someone was wondering about the difference, so I thought I’d explain.  What follows here is not dictionary-type definitions, but rather my own “feel” for each of these terms after teaching English for many years.

I hope it’s not too boring :)

GRAMMAR refers to the way words are put together to make units of meaning.  Below are some grammar-related terms.  I’ll run through them in a way that builds cumulatively.

A phrase is a group of words that fit together to mean something.  So “over the river” and “through the woods” are both phrases, while “up tennis cold” is not.  A phrase does NOT have both a subject and a verb.

A clause builds on a phrase.  It is a group of words that fit together to mean something, and it DOES have both a subject and a verb.  There are two kinds of clauses: independent and dependent.

An independent clause can stand alone.  A “simple sentence” is one independent clause:

The rain ended.

We went outside.

A “compound sentence” has two or more independent clauses, joined by a conjunction (i.e., and, but, or, nor, so, for) OR by a semicolon or sometimes a colon:

The rain ended, so we went outside.

The rain ended; we went outside.

A dependent clause looks almost like an independent clause, except it has a word at the beginning that causes it to be unable to stand alone.  Here is a dependent clause:

After the rain ended

This dependent clause can’t stand alone as a complete thought, because we’re still waiting to find out what happened once the rain ended.  However, once you add an independent clause to the dependent clause, then you get a complete thought.  And a sentence that has both a dependent clause and an independent clause is called a “complex sentence”:

After the rain ended, we went outside.

We went outside after the rain ended.

Sometimes you can have a compound-complex sentence, which would be some combination of at least one dependent clause and multiple independent clauses:

After the rain ended, the sun broke through the clouds and we went outside.

Because grammar involves the way we structure our sentences, this category includes the eight “parts” of “speech”: nouns, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections (like “ouch!”).

Different languages have different grammars.  In English, for example, an adjective comes before the noun it modifies:

the red ball

Whereas in French, an adjective comes after the noun:

le ball rouge (the ball red)

Grammar can be “prescriptive,” meaning a rule you’re supposed to follow, or the way your sentences should be.  Or grammar can be “descriptive,” meaning a rule that describes the way things are, just like how the “rules” of physics describe how gravity actually works, not how it ought to work.

So that pretty much wraps up grammar: it’s about the rules that govern the way we structure our thoughts in language.

PUNCTUATION refers to the “symbols” we use to help people read/process sentences the way we want them to be heard and understood.  I always think of this as similar to musical notation.  A musical score has all kinds of symbols that specify things like volume, speed, key, “crispness” (for lack of a better word), slurred passages, etc.

So punctuation takes the form of “marks,” as in “marks of punctuation.”  Here are a few common marks of punctuation:

  • .   period
  • ;   semicolon
  • :   colon
  • ,   comma
  • ( )   parentheses
  • !   exclamation mark
  • ?   question mark

I know you know all of these, so I won’t go on.  There are lots of punctuation rules; I’m sure I’ll eventually end up talking about them in future blog posts.

As with the grammar rules, punctuation rules sort of build out on themselves.  Sentences end with periods.  Compound sentences have a comma before the conjunction, but if there is no conjunction, there should also be no comma (for then you would have the error known as a “comma splice,” which means you’ve semi-attached two independent clauses together with inadequate punctuation).  If you don’t use a conjunction, then you join the two independent clauses with either a semicolon or a colon.

So with punctuation you go from the simplest, most clear-cut mark (the period) to the more difficult choices.  But there is always a logical train of thought.  For the most part, punctuation rules follow common sense, and the rules themselves can (and should) be bent if necessary to help readers “get” what you are trying to say.

MECHANICS refers to all the arbitrary “technical” stuff in writing: spelling, capitalization, use of numerals and other symbols, etc.  These are conventions, and you just have to memorize them.  For example, you should never begin a sentence with a numeral:

NOT: 2012 is an election year.

BUT: Twenty-twelve is an election year.

OR: Remember, 2012 is an election year.

Another one you’ll know if you have a strong science background: you use the degree symbol ( ° ) with Farenheit and Celsius temperatures but not with Kelvin.  (And here’s a temperature scale I know nothing about: Rankine.  It also uses the degree symbol.)

Spelling falls into the “mechanics” category, as does capitalization.  Proper nouns (names) are capitalized.  Therefore, things named after people are also capitalized, like a Bunsen burner.  But only the “name” part is capitalized.  Note that “burner” is not capitalized.

USAGE refers to the way language is used.  Correct usage is “correct” only insofar as “experts” agree upon a particular “rule.”  Usage applies to everything talked about so far in this blog post: grammar, punctuation, and/or mechanics.

The most interesting and important thing to know about “usage” is that usage rules change over time and with shifts in context.

For example, when I first started teaching freshman composition, the English teacher’s “rule”  was that someone using the plural “their” with the singular “everybody” (instead of “his” or “her”) would be guilty of a grammar error.  Eventually, my fellow teachers and other experts (journalists, editors, writers, etc.) came to a somewhat general agreement that because no good alternative exists, the plural pronoun is not an error worth correcting.

Here’s another grammar-related change that has occurred relatively recently.  “Data” is now usually considered a singular unit rather than a plural (in Latin, datum is the singlar; data is plural), so it takes a verb like “is” and a pronoun like “it” (as it just did in this sentence :) ).

Usage can vary from culture to culture.  In the United States, collective nouns (like committee, audience, faculty) are considered singular, but in England, they take the plural form:

The audience shows its appreciation through applause. (United States)

The audience show their appreciation through applause. (England)

OR

The committee is meeting this morning. (United States)

The committee are meeting this morning. (England)

Because usage evolves, it’s fascinating to encounter a time capsule of a previous era’s language, as in an old book.  I picked up a novel by Gene Stratton-Porter at my grandmother’s house when I was very young (Freckles was its title, a 1904 book in the Horatio Alger tradition), and some of the strange spellings puzzled me greatly.  One of them, “good-bye,” didn’t seem that odd to me because I think when I was a kid, it was actually often still spelled like that (with the hyphen).  But the spelling of “to-morrow” with a hyphen was completely foreign to me.

Expert consensus regarding “correct” usage is reminiscent of the divide mentioned above between “prescriptive” versus  “descriptive.”  Experts can expound upon the way they believe something ought to be OR they can observe common practice and say that’s the way it actually is.

One of the things I love about American English is the way it is constantly reinventing itself.  Although this may also be the case with other languages, I know that some languages (e.g., Spanish and French) have official governing bodies intended to standardize and protect them from the influence of other tongues.

American English is nowhere near so pure.  It’s a dynamic reflection of our very messy, exuberant history and culture.  As such, it’s extremely democratic.  If someone creates a clever spelling, an especially apt way to punctuate, or a new word or catchphrase, others will notice and adopt it as soon as they recognize its value.

Our language’s lack of order is also, ironically, a unifiying force.  Because America’s people come from such disparate backgrounds, it can be challenging for us to share a national sense of “self.”  The ability of American English to embrace, adapt, and morph so rapidly helps put everyone on the same page, so to speak.  Expressions have currency, and if you are quick to pick up on a new way of saying something, you can join the “in” crowd’s conversation.  You belong.

And now, as Aristotle would say: so much for the difference between grammar, punctuation, and mechanics.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
This entry was posted in Grammar, punctuation, usage, mechanics, WPLongform (posts of 1000 words or longer), Writing, blogging and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to What’s the difference between grammar, punctuation, and mechanics?

  1. wow – short, informative and to the point. thanks for sharing.
    i’ll go back to this post, every now and then… kind regards. :) ~san

  2. Pingback: Semicolons: how and when to use them | Katherine Wikoff

  3. Dina says:

    This is really very helpful, thank you so much for this post!

  4. this is excellent stuff. would it be ok with you if i shared this post with some of my students? it’s a little too advanced for most of them, but there are a lot of things they could glean from what you’ve written here nevertheless. thanks, by the way, for liking my post. it’s good to know there are other writers out there stuck in the same racket!

  5. K.B. says:

    This helped me very much today! Thank you!

  6. Todd Kiefer says:

    Katherine,
    I appreciate your building block approach and comfortable prose. I am passing this to someone I know who wants to be a teacher. Thank you. I am wondering where “syntax” and “semantics” fit in this ontology? Are they just alternative words for mechanics and grammar, or is there more?

    • Todd, thank you for your kind words! And there is more to “syntax” and “semantics” than grammar and mechanics. I’ve been thinking about writing an entry on parallel construction for a while now, so your question provides the impetus not only to get that essay written and posted but also to maybe take on the bigger ideas of these two related terms.

      Basically, syntax is grammar, but it focuses specifically on form and structure. I remember studying transformational/generative grammar in grad school and, in particular, looking at the difference between deep and surface structures. So whether the surface structure comes out as “the red ball” (English) or as “the ball red” (French), the deep structure underlying the different surface forms is the same.

      Semantics is concerned with meaning, whether the meaning is intrinsic to a word/phrase itself or is partially or wholly derived from the word in context (as in post-structuralism, where the meaning is found not in what is actually said but rather in the “absence” hinted at via “codes” in the words used. Sort of like the difference between “denotation” and “connotation” in a word’s meaning.)

      I read a critique of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style once that really helped point out the difference between syntax and semantics for me (that is, at least the way I understand those terms).

      Strunk & White listed a sentence that was purportedly “bad” because it was too wordy and written in passive voice: “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.” The authors admonished the reader to write instead: “Dead leaves covered the ground.” Although in terms of syntax there wouldn’t be much difference between the two sentences, except that the shorter sentence is more efficient and easily processed by a reader, there is a LOT of difference in terms of semantics.

      “A great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” conjures up a mental image in which the ground itself (the grass, say) is still clearly visible through the dead leaves. On the other hand, “Dead leaves covered the ground” makes my mind’s eye see a much thicker carpet of dead leaves, completely blanketing the ground so that it (the grass) can no longer be seen. So the change in syntax (form) actually causes a change in semantics (meaning). In this case, the “wrong” sentence structure may best convey a more accurate meaning.

      I’m not a linguist, and “syntax” and “semantics” are pretty specialized subfields of study. I hope I can do justice to the discussion if I write a whole blog post about them. But I’m looking forward to the challenge of exploring these meaty topics in plain language. Thank you :)

  7. OdesIsPro says:

    I am going to keep this book marked. It’s so well written and helpful.

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