The Bedford Handbook, 5th ed.
Diana Hacker. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 788 pp.
<http://www.bedfordbooks.com/english/for5/index.html>.
ISBN 0-312-14243-9 (cloth)
ISBN 0-312-16637-0 (paper)
ISBN 0-312-17816-6 (CD-ROM)
cover.jpg - 19374 Bytes

A review by Chitralekha De Duttagupta

As a teacher of composition, I have always considered handbooks as indispensable reference tools for writers,  experienced as well as inexperienced. They serve as useful resource guides; a place where one can go to at critical, as well as at not-so-critical, moments to look up vital, as well as less important, matters that crop up in the process of writing. In my years of teaching, I have looked at several handbooks, but none has impressed me as much as the fifth edition of Diana Hackerís The Bedford Handbook , available in hardcover, paperback, and, appropriately for the technological age, in electronic format. When I first looked at it, I began with high expectations, because Hackerís handbooks have always been at the top of my list for their utilitarian value, but I can say that this was beyond my expectations, a handbook superior to others of its kind in every way.

In the first moments of evaluating the text, however, I made one fundamental mistake. I began to look at it from the teacherís perspective, trying to gauge it for quality. However, very soon, I realized that Hacker intended it as a useful reference for the student writer to find and understand information when the teacher is not present to offer assistance. This realization dawned upon me not only because the writer addresses her intended audience directly, talking to them in a friendly and understanding manner, but also because she seems to have dealt with and provided solutions to every conceivable problem that student writers in First Year Composition classes generally face, whether it concerns the writing process in general or puzzling grammatical issues in particular. It is a how-to, when-to, when-not-to book, dealing with what are apparently fundamentals, which can also be maddeningly confusing. This is a book for the student to handle on her own, to learn from and understand on her own, a reference guide that will adequately supplement the writing text prescribed by her institution and supplement, too, classroom discussions of the writing process and of common student trouble spots.

The book is amazingly compact, considering the wealth of information it contains. Attractively designed in white and blue, it is literally a handbook, fitting snugly in your hand. It consists of 11 parts, with the basic pattern of each part being the same. Only the content is different. The material covered ranges from the writing process itself to the basics of grammar and to research and documentation. Parts 1, 9 and 10 deal with the writing process, while the other parts deal with grammar and editing. Different icons are keyed to each of the 11 parts, along with numbered sections, sub-sections and page numbers. Students can, in limited time situations, quickly find the information they need, either by looking at the icons of the different parts or by looking at the section or page numbers. The left-hand pages display the icons, and the right-hand pages the section and page numbers. Thus the book suits different styles of looking up matter. Content headings are in red for greater emphasis. Apart from the brief menu on the front cover, there is a detailed menu at the back, an index, and a very useful Glossary of Usage of commonly confused or misused words as well as colloquialisms and jargon. Additionally, before actually getting into the material in the handbook, Hacker includes five invaluable tutorials that will give students practice using the bookís various resources, with answers that are also provided at the back.

The tutorials are indeed unique in that they aim to familiarize students, before they actually start using the book, with the different features that they will find especially useful. For example, Tutorial 1 gives students practice in using the menus in the handbook by presenting certain rules that violates the principle it expresses (e.g "A verb have to agree with its subject") and then asks them to find the section in the handbook that explains the principle and fix the problem. In this way, students gain familiarity with the book at the same time that they get an opportunity to work on their grammar skills. Tutorial 2 directs student attention to the index. Hacker presents sentences followed by questions in parentheses (e.g., "Should I use 'lying' or 'laying'''). To locate the answers to the question, students need to use the index at the back and then edit the sentences if necessary. Once again, a dual purpose is served: familiarity with the handbook is promoted at the same time that students exercise their language skills.

Tutorial 3 is linked to Tutorials 1 and 2, requiring students to use either the menus or the index to find certain information, such as rules involving the use of articles or the rules for commas. The fourth tutorial demonstrates to students the utility of the Glossary of Usage by requiring them to determine if italicized words in a sentence are used correctly, e.g., "The pediatrician gave my daughter a injection for her allergy." The fifth and last tutorial is somewhat different, but no less useful, in that it takes students to the MLA directory, asking them to provide entries in a properly formatted list of Works Cited. Together, these tutorials make it easy for even the weakest students to begin understanding how the handbook works, and encourages them to use it as they write.

Since this is a handbook for writers, Part 1 of the book appropriately begins with the writing process, with advice on how to generate ideas, think about audience and purpose, get a focus, build effective paragraphs, sketch a rough draft and revise. What I especially liked about this part was that Hacker helps students ward off the dreaded writerís block by providing lists of possible topics for students to write about in situations where they are free to choose their own subject. She also suggests that students try out useful brainstorming techniques such as listing, clustering, outlining etc. by actually providing examples of how such strategies work. In addition, she throws in advice about how to write a good thesis, create outlines, write a conclusion, use effective revision strategies, and proofread. In fact, she has a lot of ideas to get students started thinking and writing, complete with an example of a student draft that shows the process of writing, through brainstorming, the rough draft, revisions and the final draft. I cannot think of a better way to emphasize the fact that writing is a process.

But writing also requires thinking, so Part 2 focuses on how to read critically by understanding a text, annotating it, questioning the authorís assumptions, analyzing and then writing about it. The student is taken step-by-step throughout the whole process, beginning with planning, listing arguments, considering opposing arguments, supporting arguments with facts and reasoning carefully. A sample argument paper is also provided.

As all English teachers know, student writing is beset with both major and minor grammatical problems, so Parts 3-8 and Part 11 of the handbook focus on issues of grammar. Though some of the advice is very basic, such as "Capitalize the first word of a sentence" (page 516), or "Use a period to end all sentences, except direct questions or genuine exclamations" (page 476), other grammatical matters addressed will be welcomed by all student writers. Coordination, subordination, sentence combining, adding words, mixed constructions, articles, dangling modifiers, split infinitives, verb tenses, active and passive voice, sentence variations, wordiness, repetitions, euphemisms, cliches, sexist language, sentence fragments, run-on sentences, comma splices, subject-verb agreement, pronoun references, comparatives/superlatives, irregular verbs, double negatives, gerunds, different kinds of punctuation, capitalization, abbreviation, italicization, spelling rules--you name it, and it is there. Rules regarding these are summarized and examples are given of what to do and of what not to do, of what is acceptable and what is not, so that the student should have no problem in understanding and following the rules of what are often grammatical quirks, irritating to the teacher when she confronts them in student papers, and a godsend to students who often do not know how to navigate their way through such a grammatical maze.

The handbook is useful, too, for students writing research papers in any field of study. Hacker takes the student step-by-step through the process of research in Part 9, beginning with possible research topics, narrowing down the focus, mapping out a search strategy, dealing with different kinds of library resources as well as researching and evaluating sources in the Internet and WWW, doing field research, maintaining a working bibliography, managing information, paraphrasing, quoting, keeping away from plagiarism, and citing and integrating sources. Examples are provided of MLA and ACW styles of documentation and two sample research papers of the more commonly used MLA format are included. There is also a very useful chart of specialized reference works and periodical indexes in different fields such as humanities, business, religion, health, medicine etc.

In Part 10, Hacker branches out into something a little different---writing about literature. She focuses on how to write a literary paper dealing with a specific text through proper interpretation of the literary piece. As always, she begins at the beginning, taking the student through reading strategies, forming an interpretation, drafting a thesis, supporting interpretation with evidence, integrating quotations from the work, and observing all the conventions of literary papers. Four kinds of documentation format are included: for the MLA and ACW format, both in-text and works cited are set in teal, the APA format is in red and the Chicago style format is in gray. The different colors used highlight the stylistic distinction that the author is trying to emphasize, and also make it easy to locate the relevant pages. Directories to in-text citation models also help find the documentation models. Each documentation style is supplemented with pertinent samples of that style for the benefit of that student. A list of style manuals for various other disciplines such as biology, chemistry, geology, journalism etc. are also included.

Just when you think that by now everything possible that has to do with writing has been covered, you stumble upon Part 11, "Grammar Basics", the one part that I think Hacker could have done away with in a handbook written for community college and university students. Probably Hackerís intention was to refresh student memories regarding the different parts of speech, but in a handbook that is intended to serve as an aid to students writing papers at an advanced level, I, as a teacher, at least assume that my students know what the different parts of speech are before they come into the writing classroom.

Hackerís book is exceptionally detailed. It does not only give rules; it offers definitions, too, as needed. If you are told to stay away from jargon, or to be aware of logical fallacies, Hacker is careful to first define and give examples of what exactly jargon is, or what logical fallacies are, and then how they can be revised. In fact, examples strewn all over the book is one of its strongest points, and examples of both the right and the wrong make for better comprehension. Exceptions to rules (e.g., "occasionally a fragment may be used deliberately for effect"--page 291) are also acknowledged. Common problems are comprehensively covered. Not sure of the difference between the passive and the active? Look under "emphasis" on page 233. Wondering what sentence fragments are? Look under "fragments" on page 285. When to use articles? Look under "ESL problems with articles" on page 405. In fact, there is a whole section, Part 6, that deals with common ESL grammatical problems that ESL students (as well as native speakers) will find very useful.

As I went through the book, I appreciated very much the handwritten revisions made in red. They highlight error and correction and make students realize that hard copies of their own drafts will look like these. Another very appealing feature of the handbook is the 50 grammar checker and ESL boxes scattered throughout its pages. The grammar checker boxes are very appropriate for our electronic age, since virtually all students now use word processing programs to write their papers. They show what grammar checkers and spell checkers can and canít do and so alert students who rely almost totally on such checkers about their possible drawbacks. ESL boxes provide special tips for ESL students and also direct them to parts of the book where more detailed information can be found about ESL trouble spots. Other valuable aspects of the handbook include information on designing documents, including e-mail and Web pages, different ways of spelling in British and American English, business formats, transitions, conciseness, euphemisms vs. plain English, appropriate vs. inappropriate language, idiomatic vs. the unidiomatic, the difference between "I" and "me", "who" and "whom", "lie" and "lay", two-word verbs such as "put on", advice on when to use and when not to use "the" with geographical names, how to read word entries in a dictionary, commonly misspelled words, proper nouns and common nouns etc.

Since this is a handbook for students to learn from on their own, extensive and useful exercise sets accompany every section of the book, dealing with material covered in that specific part. Hacker has done well to include such exercises because they test studentsí understanding of the matter covered in that section by offering practice. Answers are provided at the back of the book so that students can check the learning that has taken place, determine their own progress as well as lingering weaknesses, and keep working on drawbacks.

At first glance, the material in the book may seem overwhelming, and if you want to peruse it thoroughly, it will require time and patience. But it is not a book intended for reading and comprehending in one sitting. It is a reference book that you keep going back to as and when you need it, and gradually you will develop familiarity with it. It will answer most of your writing questions from planning to editing. Apart from the menu, each part begins with a summary of the contents in it, so you can decide whether what you want is there or whether you need to look somewhere else. If you donít want to wade through all the material in a particular section, you can go to the full-paged teal and beige charts that allow for quick review of material in that part or summarize important material, especially common student problems. In other words, you can easily pin-point the material you need in the shortest possible time. For example, one chart checks for wordy sentences, another offers a brief review of dangling modifiers, one summarizes commonly used non-count nouns, while yet others act as a checklist for problems with pronouns or sentences or ways to evaluate a web site. There are also "Looking at yourself as a writer" charts intended to encourage self-reflection in a writer about why she tends to make certain errors and what could be a possible cure for the problem.

In this book, Hacker does all the right things. It is well laid-out, very methodical, with an easy-to-use and locate menu and index, interesting icons, divisions and sub-divisions of the various parts, clear, concise language and a realistic approach. The advice given is clear and simple. As a handbook, it is extremely effective. Since only practice makes perfect, it will not act as a magical wand that will make our studentsí writing problems disappear, but it will go a very long way in helping them, even those who have the greatest difficulty with writing, grapple with intricacies of grammar and deal with the writing process more successfully. It is a book that is easy on the student and on the teacher, but they need to work in conjunction if they want to use the book successfully. If a student has a particular writing problem, the teacher should be able to easily direct her to the particular portion of the book where Hacker deals with that particular issue by mentioning the page number given in the menu or by looking up the page number in the index if it is not in the menu. For example, "appositives" are not in the brief menu, but they can be located through the index. There are also correction symbols at the end of the book which saves the teacher time because she does not have to correct in longhand, but can use the symbols, and all the student needs to do is look up the symbol, realize what the teacher means, and then look up the term in the menu or index .  They can then correct the error by going to the right place and finding the relevant information. This wonderful handbook can effectively supplement classroom instruction, especially since there is not much time to deal with grammar and editing instruction in the writing classroom. It carries wonderful suggestions through concrete examples on how to plan and write better and avoid the common errors student writers make. It can help a lot or help very little, depending on individual needs and different writing assignments. Personally, I feel that this is an important resource manual for writing teachers, too, and I will treasure my own copy of this edition of the Bedford Handbook. Kudos to Hacker for coming up with such a new, improved version.