Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics. And we’ll throw in Syntax and Style for good measure. And no, those won’t be capped for the entire post. That’d be silly. First use is plenty, because now you readers know what the Important Terms are going to be for the rest of this discussion. (That’s a style thing. You’ll learn more about it later.)
We can’t write or speak—we can’t use language—without at least four of those things. Grammar tells us the rules that explain how our words work. It tells us about nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, and more. It tells us what we need for a complete sentence (a subject and a verb). It tells us how to form a question. Grammar is a set of rules. Not suggestions, not guidelines. Rules. And you know what? Most of us learn these rules by osmosis. We absorb them from hearing other people talk; we are exposed to them when we read. (Sadly, we may read poorly-written material and learn the wrong things, but that’s another post for another time.)
Usage is just what it sounds like. How are words used in language? Sometimes we use one word when we’re writing and another when we’re speaking. That’s usage. I’ll quote Bryan A. Garner’s introduction to the “Word Usage” section of the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.: “The great mass of linguistic issues that writers and editors wrestle with don’t really concern grammar at all—they concern usage: the collective habits of a language’s native speakers.” Which word do we use in a given situation: less or fewer? What are the nuanced differences between convince and persuade? Do we say “a myriad of” or “myriad?” (See that question mark? Its use is mechanics, but its placement is a question of style.)
Mechanics is an inclusive term for punctuation and spelling. Calling a run-on sentence a “grammatical error” is incorrect. It’s a mechanical (specifically punctuation) error. Here’s an example of one, I’ll just use a comma there instead of a period or a semicolon. That’s two complete thoughts, two independent clauses (that’s a technical term), with only a comma between them. The rules of mechanics tell us that it’s wrong. Mechanics are also covered to a point by style (as I pointed out in the previous paragraph). More about that later, too.
I don’t think I need to explain spelling.
Syntax tells us how we put words together and make phrases, clauses, and sentences. It’s different from grammar in that it describes how the words work together, but it works with grammar to allow us to speak and write. Without one, we can’t have the other. You may hear them spoken of together: grammar and syntax. Both are part of linguistics, which is the study of human speech. Syntax is why “the lazy dog caught the cat” means something different from “the cat caught the lazy dog.” (The latter makes better sense, don’t you agree?) Syntax is also why it sounds strange to us to say “the red big barn.” Native English speakers tend to put the more general descriptor first (“big”) and the more specific ones after (“red,” and perhaps “wooden” for good measure).
Then we come to style. Style guides contain guidelines (that’s why they’re guides and not rulebooks) for how the words look on the page, whether it’s an actual printed page in a bound book or a page on a website. They’re for written English, not spoken. Calling a style difference a “grammatical error” is an error itself. We don’t need to worry about style most of the time. Many writers have no clue about style guides; they don’t need to. Their editors need to, though. Of the five terms I’m covering, this one is perhaps the least important—and also the most contentious.
Perhaps the most familiar style point is the serial, or Oxford, comma. At least one satire site has published a faux news story about casualties caused during a battle over it between Chicago and AP style users. It’s the difference between the presence of a comma before the last item in a series (Chicago, APA, and MLA all use this) and the lack of a comma in that position (AP). Here’s an example: red, white, and blue flags OR red, white and blue flags. Here’s another: eggs, toast, and juice for breakfast OR eggs, toast and juice for breakfast.
Style also governs things like capitalization of terms, use of abbreviations and the styling of those abbreviations, and hyphenation guidelines. Guidelines. Not rules. Other style issues are margins, line spacing, use of italics and boldface, and index/reference list conventions. I’m not even trying to provide an all-inclusive list. Get yourself a style guide (AP for news style, APA for science, MLA for academic, Chicago for most everything else) and poke at it. Better yet, save a bunch of money. Get a copy of June Casagrande’s The best punctuation book, period. Why do I say this? Because most of what’s different from style to style is the punctuation, and punctuation is one of those triggers for people. This book covers the four major guides in a very accessible format.
The Chicago Manual of Style contains a chapter on grammar and usage as a reference for users of that style. The rules don’t change from style guide to style guide; they’re rules. However, Chicago has a section on grammar for users to ensure they understand things like how to use prepositions in parallel structure. It also contains a section covering common “problem words.” (I told you these things all work together, didn’t I?)
That’s a lot of information covered by the single heading of style. I say it’s perhaps the least important of the five, though, because our understanding of the words, whether spoken or written, is less affected by style considerations than by any of the other four points. If our grammar is poor, people will have trouble understanding us. If our spelling is poor, people will have trouble reading our words. If our punctuation is poor, the meaning of our sentences might not be what we intended. If our usage is poor, people may form a different opinion about us than if it were “standard” or “correct” (both contentious terms in themselves). If our syntax is poor, our message will almost certainly be garbled. (It’s rare to find truly poor syntax, thankfully. That’s because, much as with grammar, we tend to learn proper syntax by osmosis. We hear how words are put together to form phrases and clauses and sentences, and we copy what we hear.)
If our style is poor, though, the worst that’s probably going to happen is someone tagging our house with comma-laden graffiti.
NB: I purposely strove to keep this as general as possible, to touch on only major points and not fine ones. There are scads of books available that go into detail about grammar, usage, mechanics, syntax, and style. This is a blog post, not another book.