What’s the difference between grammar and punctuation? Why does knowing the difference matter?
And how can you get better at them, even if all the grammar and punctuation rules are a struggle to remember?
What Is Grammar?
Grammar refers to the way we put words together in sentences and paragraphs to form meaning. It’s the fundamental structure of language, dictating what words should go where, and why.
One of the most basic grammar rules describes the building blocks of a sentence: every sentence needs a noun and a verb. A complete sentence will have a noun and a verb and can stand alone. (This sentence type is sometimes referred to as an independent clause or a simple sentence.)
A string of words that’s missing a subject and or a verb isn’t a sentence. It’s just a jumble of words, and it’s difficult to extract meaning.
But put together a noun and a verb, and you have meaning.
Tiny two-word sentences like these are the most concise examples of grammar at work. From there, grammar describes all the ways we can add words so that each one makes sense and brings clarity.
Most kids begin comprehensive grammar in their classes in elementary school, and they continue working on correct grammar usage for the rest of their school career, if not life.
What Is Punctuation?
Punctuation refers to all the little symbols we use to enhance sentences and add clarity. These symbols can indicate pauses between ideas, the relationships between words, and even the emotion sentences convey, among other things.
You’re probably familiar with the most common punctuation marks:
A period (.) separates sentences. In British English, it’s called a full stop, which is a great way to describe the way it brings a sentence to a halt.
A comma (,) creates a smaller pause in the middle of sentences. It can divide content by clause, delineate list items from one another (that’s what all the commas in this sentence are for), and indicate sentence continuation before and after quotation marks.
A question mark (?) makes it clear that a sentence isn’t simply a statement, but a question.
An exclamation mark (!) changes the tone of a sentence to convey emotions like excitement, enthusiasm, or urgency. (Also, it's sometimes called an exclamation point.)
There are ten more punctuation marks you can add to your sentences as they become more complicated. But a strong grasp of these first four will cover most of your writing.
Other Useful Terms
Grammar and punctuation cover many of the rules of language, but not all of them. There are a couple more categories of guidelines that will be helpful in your writing.
What words should you capitalize in a sentence (like openings and proper nouns)? When should you use typographical symbols like asterisks? How do you write numbers?
How do you spell particular words?
These are all questions of mechanics, the rules governing all the miscellaneous technical aspects of writing that aren’t already covered by grammar and punctuation.
Usage refers to the context in which language is used. You’ll use different words and style in academic writing than in a Facebook post, for example. And specific words might hold different connotations in different contexts.
While the rules of grammar, punctuation, and mechanics still apply, recognizing the context you’re writing for will help you fit your writing to your audience.
Grammar Vs. Punctuation: Why Do We Need Them?
Grammar, punctuation, usage, mechanics — it can all feel overwhelming, like an enormous pile of rules, right? Why do we even need them? Why can’t we jettison all the rules and just write?
These rules might seem confusing or pedantic, but in truth, they exist for one good reason: to bring clarity. And grammatical errors can muddy meaning.
A misplaced comma might not seem to make much difference, but it could change the entire meaning of a sentence. Replace a dash with a hyphen, and you’ll definitely confuse your reader. Arrange your adjectives in the wrong order, and people won’t think about how well you described something, but how weird your writing sounds. Your writing skills (including proper grammar) reflect your writing style.
You want your readers to be immersed in your writing, enjoying the mellifluous flow of your words from start to finish. Errors in grammar and punctuation are like tiny bumps in the road, jarring readers out of your story as they struggle to decipher what you mean.
Correct grammar and punctuation might seem small. But it’s actually a subtle but powerful way to keep readers engaged, and to ensure they’ll always understand exactly what you mean.
How Can You Improve Your Grammar and Punctuation?
It’s all well and good to understand the difference between grammar vs punctuation. But how do you learn all these rules? Grammar and punctuation are challenging areas for many writers. How can you grow as a writer and master these technical areas?
Read a lot
Want to learn grammar and punctuation? Read. A lot.
Read published books that have been well-edited. You can read articles from reputable news outlets; their articles have to pass through eagle-eyed editorial teams to ensure they’re error-free before publication. Read newspapers and magazines.
Reading won’t teach you specific rules of grammar or punctuation. But it will expose you to a wide variety of tricky grammatical situations, and it will help you learn the cadence and rhythm of well-punctuated, grammatically-correct writing.
Yes, you’ll need to study, too, and we’ll talk about that next. But in the long run, wouldn’t it be nice to spend less time thinking about all these rules, not more? The more you read, the more natural error-free writing will feel.
Plus, you’ll be more well-read and have more fodder for your stories, too. A win-win!
Practice specific rules
Struggling with something specific? Look up the grammar or punctuation rule. Practice any exercises you can find (pro tip: there’s a practice exercise at the end of every article here on The Write Practice!).
Then, whenever you finish a piece of writing, look carefully for that specific error. The more you practice, the fewer errors you’ll find!
Not sure what grammar or punctuation pitfalls you face? Ask for feedback on your writing from a writing group, editor, teacher, or grammar-savvy friend. They’ll be able to point out repetitive errors and help you overcome them.
Use a grammar checker
A grammar checker is an incredibly useful tool for catching any potential errors as you write. Depending on the tool, it may note grammar and punctuation errors, show you how to correct them, offer suggestions for word choice and style, and create a list of common errors so you know exactly what to study.
Of course, even the best grammar checker still occasionally makes mistakes, so before you publish an important document, make sure a real human being proofreads it. But when it comes to quickly and easily correcting almost all errors, there’s little better than a grammar checker.
Hire a line editor and/or proofreader
What if you want to publish a book, but you know you tend to make a lot of mistakes in grammar and punctuation?
First off, you’re not alone. Many writers are amazing storytellers, yet still struggle with grammar mistakes including misplaced commas, apostrophes, and when to use “who” versus “whom.”
That’s where line editors and proofreaders come in. Their jobs are to make sure your writing flows beautifully and is precisely correct at every turn.
A line editor will comb through your writing sentence-by-sentence, examining your grammar, punctuation, word usage, and more. They’ll make sure every sentence communicates your ideas in the best possible way to give your readers the most pleasant reading experience.
A proofreader will give your book the final pass before publication, double-checking to make sure no pesky errors or typos have slipped through. They're your final defense against misplaced commas and misspelled words.
If grammar and punctuation still intimidate you, rest assured that your job as a writer isn’t to correct every comma, but to tell a good story. The world is full of editors who will be happy to help you polish it, but only you can write the story inside of you.
Master Grammar and Punctuation
Ready to master grammar and punctuation? We’ve put together tons of resources here on The Write Practice to help.
Kick off your grammar study with our Grammar Tutorial. This ten-day email tutorial will guide you through our best lessons on grammar and punctuation.
Then, take it to the next level with our library of grammar and punctuation articles. Or, search the site for the specific topic you want to practice.
And don’t forget to give your writing a boost with a grammar checker like ProWritingAid.
You've got this! Go forth to compose and punctuate sentences with confidence.
Need more grammar help? After you demonstrate your punctuation mastery in the practice section below, check out my favorite tool, ProWritingAid , which helps writers improve their grammar, sentence structure, and more. Also, be sure to use my coupon code to get 20 percent off: WritePractice20
What challenges do you struggle with when it comes to grammar vs punctuation? Let us know in the comments.
Today, we’re going to take punctuation to its logical extreme. Take fifteen minutes to write a story based on this prompt: the shoe was definitely gone.
Use as many different punctuation marks as you can. When you’re done, share your writing practice in the Pro Practice Workshop here and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
Alice Sudlow is the Editor-in-Chief of The Write Practice and a Story Grid certified developmental editor. Her specialty is in crafting transformative character arcs in young adult novels. She also has a keen eye for comma splices, misplaced hyphens, and well-turned sentences, and is known for her eagle-eyed copywriter skills. Get her free guide to how to edit your novel at alicesudlow.com.