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

The use of these terms in grammar and language study can be inconsistent and individual. There is sometimes even confusion within one document by the same author. We saw with previous post that some people label mistakes in usage (which primarily deals with the use of a word) as an error in grammar. And indeed the word grammar can mean different things depending on context, which the post What is Grammar?” enumerated.

This lack of clarity or agreement extends to the discussion of punctuation and mechanics. While one resource separates the topics into “punctuation, mechanics, capitalization, and spelling” (e-education.psu.edu), others put capitalization under the category of “mechanics” – though one is a bit vague including “other symbols”  under all that  “arbitrary ‘technical’ stuff” (katherinewikoff.com). The Little, Brown Handbook includes “capitals and numbers” as does Wikoff, but also lists “underlining, abbreviations, and word division.”

In the chapter “Punctuation and Mechanics,” the online text Syntaxis: A Grammar Guide for Business Professionals states that mechanics “governs the proper use of parentheses, quotation marks, capital letters, apostrophes, and hyphens.” However, most handbooks which separate punctuation and mechanics would consider all but “capital letters” under punctuation, not mechanics. (The Everyday Writer hedges the issue by creating a chapter “Punctuation/Mechanics” without distinguishing between the two.)

Richard Nordquist, however, gives the most comprehensive definition: “In composition, writing mechanics are the conventions governing the technical aspects of writing, including spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and abbreviations.” He includes parentheses, quotation marks, hyphens, and apostrophes as marks of punctuation, so to separate them out from punctuation as the authors of Syntaxis do does not make sense, even though they are mechanical marks. (Here is Nordquist’s list: “Marks of punctuation include ampersands, apostrophes, asterisks, brackets, bullets, colons, commas, dashes, diacritic marks, ellipsis, exclamation points, hyphens, paragraph breaks, parentheses, periods, question marks, quotation marks, semicolons, slashes, spacing, and strike-throughs.”)

I would like to introduce a term that may have gone out of fashion, but that is the word graphics which would cover all of the areas touched on. Graphic has many associations, including the sense of being vivid and of being explicit (violent or sexual), as well as visual with an illustration (or graph), graphic arts, and graphic design.

But as dictionaries and one of my favorite texts for learning English language skills, English 3200 asserts, graphics is one of many words derived from the Greek word graphein, meaning “to write”: telegraph (distance writing), phonograph (sound writing), and graphite (the “lead” in pencils). [The core of pencils are made up of a non-toxic mineral which derive its name graphite from the German graphit invented in the late 18th century.

In the field of languages, graphics means the devices that are used only in writing, not speech. As discussed in the post on mechanical errors with quotations, while grammar is the structure of written and spoken language, mechanics covers the rules of written language, such as spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. When one is speaking, it is not possible to make an error in punctuation, capitalization, or spelling.

Many posts have discussed individual “errors” in writing, with a recent post considers the issue in detail, emphasizing that an error depends on the style and authority one is following. English language studies involve the rules of Standard English, which as Mark S. LeTourneau in English Grammar describes as “the variety used in professional, academic, governmental, and generally in public settings and for public purposes.” He goes on say that it is “sometimes called a grapholet, a written (as opposed to a spoken) variety” (16).

This is one reason I prefer the term graphics because it is all encompassing and does not have the confusion caused by the separation of punctuation and mechanics or the blurring of ascribing some punctuation marks as mechanical which the authors of Syntaxis do.

Graphical marks can also be considered under the category of typography, another word derived from the Greek word graphein, combined with the Greek word typos, meaning impression or cast (merriam-webster.com). Typography of course has to do with printing, and a typographical character is simply a printed symbol—this includes letters, numbers, and punctuation marks, says Andy Martin in his article “10 Fascinating Typographical Origins.”

Of course, there are a lot more typographical marks used in the printing world, though we familiar with ones like the ampersand (&), the paragraph mark or pilcrow (¶), and the one so familiar in email addresses, the “at sign” (@), which was originally used in business to mean “at the rate of,” but more recently to mean “directed at.” But some sources distinguish between typographical symbols and punctuation marks, even though punctuation marks as Martin says above are included.

Though writers need to be concerned with spelling, capitalization, and abbreviations, punctuation marks are the graphics that writers are most concerned with. The word punctuation, as Nordquist says, comes from the Latin word punctuare meaning “making a point,” so it is “the set of marks used to regulate texts and clarify their meanings, mainly by separating or linking words, phrases, and clauses.”

LeTourneau proposes a more useful approach in learning and teaching punctuation, which is to show how punctuation marks set off syntactical constituents. Martha Kolln, author of Rhetorical Grammar agrees: “It’s important to remember the purpose of punctuation: to give the reader information about the kind of structure that follows” (84).

Kolln goes further to cite Charles F. Meyer’s classification of punctuation into 3 categories – syntactic, prosodic, and sematic (250). Semantics deals with meaning, and prosody with rhythm and intonation; syntax or structure of sentences determines the punctuation marks it will contain.

Like many of the so-called “laws” of grammar, the rules for using punctuation are conventions and these have changed over the centuries, despite some language mavens insisting on a pure or prescriptive English. And although Ellen Jovin, one of the authors of Syntaxis, claims that she hates “grammar snobbery” and believes that “we should tolerate each other’s usages,” she insists on not splitting infinitives, among other language myths and prescriptions. And as with those who label word usage errors as grammatical ones, Jovin and her co-author also lump mechanics and punctuation as grammar; for example when they assert in their “Introduction” that “minding grammatical details” is important for business people.

Conventions also vary across English varieties, including across national boundaries. For instance, as discussed in the post on mechanical errors with a quotation, American usage with punctuation with quotation marks differs the British one. (In Britain, periods and commas are placed outside the quotation mark, while in the United States, they are placed within.)

For this reason, we need to be careful with our rules and insistence on graphics usage. A former Writing Workshop participant, both a scientist and native of England, who recently published his novel, encountered an editor who “corrected” his manuscript for not using the Oxford comma (which is not used routinely in the sciences) and for using the British system of quotation marks and punctuation. Fortunately, the author was able to stand his ground, and it was his usage that made it into the final print copy.

(References: Nordquist on mechanics and on punctuation; Andy Martin on typology; The Little, Brown Handbook; Syntaxis English Grammar; The Everyday Writer; English Grammar; Rhetorical Grammar.)

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