Good Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation

grammar spelling and punctuation

Get the lowdown on grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Let’s get technical for a minute. What, exactly, is grammar?

According to Wikipedia:

In linguistics, grammar is the set of structural rules that govern the composition of sentences, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules….Linguists do not normally use the term to refer to orthographical rules, although usage books and style guides that call themselves grammars may also refer to spelling and punctuation.

Technically speaking, in linguistics and academia, spelling and punctuation are not components of grammar. When we discuss the mechanics of writing, we don’t refer to grammar. We refer to grammar, spelling, and punctuation because spelling and punctuation are separate components from grammar.

So how is grammar meaningful if words aren’t spelled properly and if punctuation isn’t applied correctly in a piece of writing? Aren’t spelling and punctuation critical to the structure of written language?

Grammar and Orthography

There are two common ways that language manifests: it is either spoken or written. Grammar deals with how we structure the language, and it is applied to both speech and writing. Orthography, on the other hand, addresses the rules of a language’s writing system or script.

Orthography deals with spelling and punctuation, because these elements are only relevant when the language is written.

After all, when you say a sentence aloud, you don’t say period, question mark, or exclamation point at the end. However, if you’re reading the sentence aloud, you need these punctuation marks to help you navigate the text, and they also provide cues that inform the way we stress words or inflect the reading.

Proper Grammar and Popular Grammar

I’m not a linguist. I’m a writer. I’m interested in linguistics and etymology, but only to the extent that these fields of study inform my writing and can help me better understand how to use the tools of my craft.

Grammar addresses how we structure our language and includes concepts such as tense agreement, modifiers, sentence diagramming, word order in a sentence, and sentence order in a paragraph.

But when we’re dealing with written language, proper spelling is just as essential as tense agreement. It would be quite difficult to get through a written text that was not punctuated or if the majority of the words were spelled incorrectly.

Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation

Oddly, I’ve found that spelling and punctuation are misused far more than structural (or grammatical) elements in writing. Most people know how to put their words in order, and a writer of average skill is usually good at verb and tense agreements and other aspects of writing that would be construed as grammatical in nature.

Yet plenty of folks struggle with orthography (punctuation and spelling) even if their grammar is in good order. This makes sense, because we are primarily exposed to spelling and punctuation through reading and writing. But the structure of our language comes to us through listening and speaking as well.

In other words, we writers are probably far more immersed in grammar than we are in orthography.

Putting it All Together

Technically speaking, grammar may not include spelling and punctuation, but we need all these elements in our writing. We talk about grammar, spelling, and punctuation because these are separate but related elements that work together to produce a mechanically coherent piece of writing.

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About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


10 Responses to “Good Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation”

  1. Hello Melissa!

    Great post!

    I am one of the fortunate ones, I guess, who had great creative writing teachers. I am also one of the fortunate ones who didn’t sleep through class.

    I am behind this post 100% because, as a writer of short stories and also being on the receiving end of two short story contests each year, I see a lot of abuse of the King’s English.

    I am still hopeful that those who read smartly and write smartly will ultimately carry us back to better times.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    Wayne C. Long
    Writer/Editor/Digital Publisher

  2. Kelvin Kao says:

    Come to think of it, although I have taken several linguistics classes, I don’t recall the word “grammar” defined in any of them. The closest word that I recall is “syntax” but I don’t know how that one fits into this situation.

    As someone that first learned English in Taiwan, I didn’t have that many opportunities to actually speak it. Our curriculum therefore put a lot more emphasis on reading and writing. Sometimes i found immigrants from Taiwan to know spelling and punctuations better than native speakers as a result. I know because I am one of them.

    • I know what you mean. I took many years of French throughout my schooling, and I could always read and write French far better than I could speak it or understand it as a listener.

  3. cmdweb says:

    What a great post. I really am disheartened by the lack of general emphasis on grammar, punctuation and spelling these days in education. My kids come home and their school workbooks are full of spelling mistakes that the teacher doesn’t correct. I’m told that they only correct the words they expect the kids to have mastered by now and let the others go for the time being. Not sure if I accept that or not but I’m not going to undermine the teacher (except where she corrected a spelling with an incorrect spelling – twice).
    I have to agree with your point about spelling and punctuation being abused far more than grammar nowadays. I think grammatical errors jar the reader much more and are not readily tolerated, whereas, spelling errors and punctuation are down to general ignorance in a lot cases.
    Keep up the good work – always an interesting read.

    • Wow, that’s disturbing — a teacher who corrected a misspelling with a misspelling, twice! I don’t agree with leaving mistakes uncorrected just because they are words the kids aren’t expected to have mastered. That’s ridiculous, and I think it’s unfair to the kids.

  4. Nasir says:

    Speaking about grammar, we were told not to begin a sentence with “But” and “Due to.” The word, “However” was okay in place of “But” and “Owing to” was fine in place of “Due to.” I don’t remember the reasons for that grammatical rule now.

    • I have never heard or seen it written that one should not start a sentence with “Due to . . .” Yes, we are taught not to start sentences with conjunctions (and, or, but, yet), but I find that this is one of the best-known and most-broken rules in English grammar. I break that rule all the time, and I do it intentionally. The trick is to know the rule you’re breaking and have a good reason for breaking it.

  5. James Thayer says:

    In my freelance editing, the two most common grammatical mistakes I see are 1) when writers use the past tense instead of the past perfect tense when indicating something happened before the story “now” in a story written in the past tense, and 2) not knowing about the subjunctive case, such as “If I was going . . . .” instead of the correct “If I were going . . .”

    • Hi James, I have worked with a lot of writers who struggle with simple tense vs. past perfect tense. It is difficult to master. Also, I sometimes intentionally use simple past tense where grammar dictates I should use past perfect tense because a long passage all in past perfect tense can be extremely cumbersome. In those cases, I use my best judgement with a goal that the narrative flows smoothly and is clear and easy to read.