Who among us writers hasn’t found themselves doubting at one time or another whether the grammar in our writing was correct? I myself have at least three doubts regarding the previous sentence in this paragraph! We’ve probably all been in this situation before, getting stuck during the editing process over a comma we weren’t sure was correctly placed or the appropriate formatting for a citation. That’s why today’s Writer’s Toolkit review features a nifty handbook designed to aid writers through the trials of editing and revision: The Hodges Harbrace Handbook by Cheryl Glenn and Loretta Gray.

Hodges Harbrace Handbook - 17th Edition Hodges Harbrace Handbook - 18th Edition

Book Summary

This handbook was one of the required materials for the online creative writing course I took through UC Berkeley. I currently own the 17th edition, published in 2009 with an MLA update, though at the time of writing this review, an 18th edition has already been released (and you can be sure that more will follow).

Originally published in 1941 by English professor John Hodges as the Harbrace Handbook of English, this book has since evolved into one of the richest English writing resources available today. The contents are organized into seven parts:

  1. Grammar
  2. Mechanics
  3. Punctuation
  4. Spelling and Diction
  5. Effective Sentences
  6. Writing
  7. Research and Documentation

Parts are subdivided into chapters and color-coded for your convenience (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Also included are a preface by the authors outlining new features and revisions for the current edition, a glossary of usage, a glossary of frequently used terms, and an index.

Pros

The first thing one might notice upon opening The Hodges Harbrace Handbook is the table of contents printed right into the back of the front cover and the first pages. At a glance, it’s clear how thorough this manual is, covering as many topics as possible from grammar and mechanics to proper usage of English in college-level writing. The table provides a quick guide to different sections and chapters, which are colored and numbered for easy reference.

As for the actual content, I find the explanations easy to understand, bearing in mind that the book is geared toward college students and above. To add to the educational experience, practice exercises are included within chapters, as are checklists for certain cases that come up in the editing process. Other notable features are the special boxes interspersed throughout the book: “Thinking Rhetorically” invites writers to consider the impact of their writing choices on their target audience; “Multilingual Writers” notes common areas of confusion for English learners, especially those for whom English is not a first language; and “Tech Savvy” provides helpful tips for using word-processing software, a useful feature for writers of the digital age. The last pages of the handbook include indexes for “Multilingual Writers” boxes, checklists and revision symbols.

One of my favorite details about the most recent editions of The Hodges Harbrace Handbook is the update for writers of modern times. As of the 17th edition, a new chapter titled “Online Writing” is included in the “Writing” part of the guide, and revisions reflect updates to MLA and APA guidelines and an expansion to a chapter on using writing software for business. Because of these updates, I would strongly advise against purchasing any edition of this handbook earlier than the 17th, published in 2009.

Cons

Honestly, this list is pretty short. In fact, the first issue I found with this handbook may have been due to error on my part. There were a couple of questions for which I couldn’t find answers in the handbook, either because I was searching for them in the wrong chapters or because they simply weren’t there. Also, the preface mentions some supplemental materials that are only available when bundled with the handbook at an additional cost. Not exactly a downside, but just a point to keep in mind if you’re looking for a complete learning experience to go with this guide.

Oh, and of course there’s the matter of price. A new latest-edition hard copy goes for over $80 on Amazon, which may seem steep to a student who only plans on using it for a semester. On the other hand, a prolific writer who needs to constantly edit and revise their work would probably find any price under $100 quite reasonable. As with any product, it’s all a matter of whether or not you feel you’d be able to get your money’s worth out of it.

Summary

Pros

  • Versatile and thorough guide to the English language
  • Well-organized contents
  • Easy to understand
  • In-chapter practice exercises
  • Special boxes for “Thinking Rhetorically”, “Multilingual Writers” and “Tech Savvy” tips
  • Extra indexes for “Multilingual Writers”, checklists and revision symbols
  • Updated edition for writing in the modern age

Cons

  • Possible missing information
  • Supplemental materials available at additional cost
  • Price ($80+ new on Amazon)

Conclusion

I highly recommend this handbook to any writer who puts as much effort into editing as into writing, if not more. Though I purchased my copy as a requirement for a class two years ago, I have since found it quite helpful when revising my work, and continue to use it today. Whether you’re looking for a complete guide to basic grammar or a full learning experience in the English language, The Hodges Harbrace Handbook is a great resource to keep handy, as much for the student writing for college as for the creative individual writing for life.

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