What do you remember most about grammar instruction? If you’re like most people it’s punctuation, punctuation, and more punctuation.
So aren’t punctuation and grammar the same thing?
They are not. Punctuation is one part of gramma and its rules apply to written language. Grammar is the structure of a language, and punctuation helps the reader understand the text.
The Difference Between Grammar and Punctuation
When we learn a language, we need to focus on rules. This could be why some people believe that grammar is nothing more than rules to follow. But, as discussed in great detail in the post What is Grammar?, grammar refers to the structure of a language. And that structure includes far more than punctuation rules.
For example, a declarative sentence typically has the noun first followed by a verb. However, when we turn a sentence into a question, the verb comes first:
We can do this later.
Can we do this later?
That is not the case for all languages. Spanish, for instance, keeps the same structure but uses inflection to indicate an interrogative.
Tú hablas ingles.
¿Tú hablas inglés?
While we focus on rules when we learn grammar, there is more to a language than punctuation.
Punctuation is Important
Punctuation helps the reader understand what they are reading. It cannot be applied willy-nilly, however. There are rules for punctuation, and they fall into these categories:
- Avoid confusion
- Based on convention
- Follow grammatical rules
We use an apostrophe, for example, to distinguish between a plural and a possessive. Consider this sentence:
My cats food bowl is empty.
Without an apostrophe (cat’s), the reader might be confused and conclude that I have more than one cat. If I have several cats, then I would write
My cats’ food bowl is empty.
We use some rules because convention says we should. For example, writers used to put two spaces after a period, but now the convention has changed, and you should only use one space. There is no grammatical reason to do so, but it is becoming an accepted practice.
These rules are sometimes called prescriptive grammar. Examples of prescriptive grammar include such rules as don’t split an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition.
Rules based on the structure of a language–descriptive grammar—are punctuation rules guided by grammar. For example, we put a period at the end of a sentence to signal a grammatical unit—a complete sentence. A period at the end of a fragment is wrong because a period signals a complete sentence.
Most, but not all, comma rules fall under this category. The blog post Why Writers Should Avoid Comma Splices explains one comma error, and another post, How to Use Commas with And, explains when not to put a comma before an and. Finally, the post Can I Put a Comma Where I Pause? dispels another myth about commas.
So punctuation is essential in writing. It helps you communicate your ideas and helps readers understand them. But it is only one element of grammar. Think of all the mistakes I could make in a sentence that is punctuated correctly.
What is Grammar?
Grammar refers to the rules of language. These rules govern how words should be combined with other words to form sentences. There are two main parts of grammar: syntax (the structure of the sentence) and semantics (how the words used make meaning).
Are Spelling and Grammar the Same Thing?
No, spelling and grammar are not the same things. While both spellings and grammatical errors are common, they are different. A spelling error occurs when a word is misspelled. This can happen because of a mistake made by the writer, the editor, or the publisher. A grammar error happens when a word is used incorrectly. It can also occur because of a mistake made during editing or publishing.
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