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.