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)


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.

51 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:

    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 🙂

      • asingh1994 says:

        Good Evening Katherine,
        First of all, I want to thank you for writing such a beautiful and well – outlined description of the differentiation between grammar, punctuation, and mechanics. Also, this post about semantics vs. syntax was very helpful!! I have always struggled with this area and thank you to Todd for posting the question!! You have definitely made things clearer for me. I am currently in college studying to become a secondary school English teacher and will definitely bookmark this and come back to this blog of yours. Hope you have a great night!!

        Thank you so much again,

      • Thank you so much for your kind words, Avneel. And best wishes for success in your studies and your future teaching career!

  7. OdesIsPro says:

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

  8. Pingback: What’s the difference between grammar, punctuation, and mechanics? | Harvey Writing Instruction

  9. Sean Demman says:

    I have been enjoying your article here, but Iam curious if you made a couple of errors yourself. Please correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t it a common rule to, “never start a sentence with and or but”?

    • Nope, that’s a usage issue. And for a long time the trend has been to accept this usage in informal contexts. I would never do it in an academic article (well, depending on how formal the journal and topic), but in a newspaper column or this blog, starting a sentence with a conjunction helps convey the conversational voice/tone I’m after. Thanks for bringing this up. There are lots of rules we’ve been taught that we can “break” to get our point across.

  10. scissna says:

    Love this Katie! Not teaching writing anymore, but still love the reminders for my own use.

  11. Talece Brown says:

    omg I was told mechanics got in the way of my script… I couldn’t figure what that meant. Now I know he said I’m illiterate… omg… So much for mac format check…. thank you for being so specific. Deep sigh.

    • Well, fortunately mechanics is a straightforward problem to solve. You can invest in some books, like The Elements of Style, or you could hire a proofreader/copy editor. But also I feel like sometimes the “mechanics” thing is a lazy copout; that is, someone doesn’t like what you’ve written but they lack the language to really articulate what the issue is, so they fall back on “mechanics, which is pretty vague. I entered a fiction contest once and had a judge give me a low score in the “grammar and punctuation” category. As a Ph.D. who really, really knows grammar and punctuation rules, I can tell you there was not one error. She just wanted to give me a low score and probably figured this was a “safe” area to do it in, in order to contribute to an overall lower score for my story. In other words, hang in there!

      • P.S. – I see errors in grammar, punctuation, and mechanics in the texts of professional writers ALL the TIME. Don’t let fear of error stop you from writing. Mistakes clearly haven’t kept all these other journalists and novelists from being published!

    • Hey, I just thought of something else. Because you were writing a script, maybe the “mechanics” they were talking about was the script formatting and NOT errors in writing mechanics.

  12. janet says:

    Hello.Loved the article. I am trying to find articles on research done on children and their understanding or use of punctuation.Would you have any pointers?


  14. Pingback: Just a fluke, but still lots of fun | Katherine Wikoff

  15. Ruth Kuzmanic says:

    I am a high school health teacher. I was searching the web for a term to use in my scoring document to cover “mechanics”. As a non-english teacher-I knew what I was looking for from the writings of my students, but did not know how to communicate that concisely to my students. Thanks for the explanation!

  16. chioma chieke says:

    I appreciate the education, and am very interested in more of such updates.

  17. Tess says:

    Thank you for your intelligent understanding about this topic. I am taking up developmental subject which is INRW0311 and your post help me understand better than the one in my book. It’s like reading a good story. I can’t wait for your next one.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. “Like reading a story”–I hadn’t thought about it that way, but now that you’ve said it, I can see it, too. At this point in my career, all of this subject matter feels so familiar to me that it’s almost part of who I am. Maybe that’s why it comes out feeling something like a story. I’m going to take that insight you’ve given me and try to find a grammar or punctuation type of topic to write about soon. Meanwhile, if you think of anything you’d be interested in reading about, please let me know! 😄

  18. Phil Johnson says:

    Thank you for the refresher. I am an old English major codger needing an airbrush.
    I do have one bone to pick: “And now, as Aristotle would say: so much for the difference between grammar, punctuation, and mechanics.” Shouldn’t “between” be “among”? Or am I just being picky?

    grace and peace,
    Phil Johnson

    • You’re absolutely correct! However, sometimes there are exceptions to that rule (naturally 😄). In this sentence I think (think, anyway!) that “between” is appropriate because I’m referring to these concepts not as isolated individual items but as a unit of interrelated concepts with meanings that make sense only in terms of their comparison with each other. What do you think? Does that sound right?

  19. Hi Katherine, thank you very much for your help in my question in research gate.

    I found that a sentence is mark by period punctuation.

    What about the sentence or clause without punctuation period in the end? Is that categorize as sentence or clause? For example in slogan.

    This article is really interesting.
    Can I have further reading or others reference for this article?

    Thank you very much.

    • Good question about slogans. I guess I’d say those almost become separate visual units that stand alone like a headline or title.

      Speaking of that, though, I’ve noticed that The Wall Street Journal puts a period at the end of its name in the flag/masthead/banner atop the front page. Kind of odd. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another publication do that.

  20. Pingback: Quora

  21. Derek says:

    I would argue that capitalisation is not always mechanics, sometimes it’s punctuation. For example Philip Pullman’s use of ‘Dust’ in Northern Lights or A A Milne’s capitalisation of words in Winnie the Pooh. Both have the effect of adding significance to the words. Like putting the words in italics but without conveying the feeling if quoting or irony which that sometimes adds.

    • Derek says:

      Excuse my typo. I meant, of course, ” feeling OF quoting”.

    • Nice point! I agree. Or, I should say: I DEFINITELY agree! 😄

      So a caveat: only when capitalization is done to satisfy convention should it be considered “mechanics.” When it is done to convey meaning, it could be considered “punctuation.”

      But now a question: would we consider things like boldface, italics, and underlining to be punctuation or to be style? And by “style” I mean all the formatting decisions available to us via modern typography courtesy of Steve Jobs and the folks at Apple. I’ve never really thought about that before.

  22. Heidy Barrientos says:

    Absolutely great!!! I have a Composition class starting this week( I am the teacher) and it was very hard to find the difference between Grammar, Punctuation, and Mechanics, here it is short, straight and well-explained, Thank you so much for this! I will be sharing your information with my class if you allow me to do it.

    • Yes, absolutely! By the way, I’m going to start posting once a week on writing and language arts topics, so if you have any ideas for topics that would be useful, I’d love to hear from you again. Thank you!!!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s