My Writing Bible

          Rather than make good on the promise with which I ended my last post [subordinate clause], to further explain coordination and subordination in prose [infinitive phrase] and risk losing my readers before the end of this complex, compound sentence [subordinate clause], I’m simply going to make a confession [independent clause]: While in theological matters I’m agnostic at best [subordinate clause], in matters of grammar [prepositional phrase], I’m a fundamentalist [independent clause], and my bible is The Harbrace College Handbook from 1984 [independent clause].

I received my first Harbrace along with my first teaching assignment: Freshman Composition, a required course, at Columbia University, where I was earning my PhD. I’d never taken such a course, and I knew nothing about participial phrases or independent clauses before I had to teach them. Harbrace saved me.

I’d read enough to know what sounded right; Harbrace gave me the rules – and I taught them to my students with the evangelical fervor of the newly converted. My enthusiasm was helpful in keeping my students awake at eight in the morning; assignments from The Book, I suspect, kept some of these students awake at night. Like it or not, students did the exercises. They learned to recognize phrases and subordinate clauses; to identify main clauses and various types of sentences, to avoid sentence fragments and run-ons, and to master techniques for effective emphasis and style.

Harbrace was our foundation text, and it gave us the vocabulary of grammar as well as the symbols I used in the margins of their papers to indicate “wordiness” (W), “awkwardness” (K), “coherence” (COH), as well as the more commonplace SP for “spelling.” My edition has a handy, alphabetical list of these symbols inside the back cover, symbols I still use when editing my own work or that of my peers.

The Book is not all grammar, however. It includes sections on Mechanics, Punctuation, Diction, Effective Sentences and Larger Elements. Look ahead for future posts on these elements of language that all writers need to control in order to write effectively for their intended audience.    

I started teaching in 1983 – the last year that Columbia was all male. The following year, women entered the class, and a new edition of Harbrace came out. It’s this ninth edition that I keep going back to, even though there have been nine more editions since then. I wasn’t aware of grammar changing so much in the last thirty years, but the current, 18th edition has 848 pages; my ninth edition has only 586. The Eighteenth also lists for a whopping $118 – but of course can be found discounted on line.  Used copies of earlier editions are much less expensive; my beloved Ninth can be found for just pennies.

I still use my Harbrace whenever I teach, whether it be in a prison classroom, a writers’ workshop, or a blog post. I also use it whenever I want to remind myself about one of those gnarly grammatical rules governing relative pronouns that [which?] always leave me uncertain.

Let me be clear: I don’t believe in strict orthodoxy, nor do I think everyone has to genuflect to Harbrace or Strunk & White or The Chicago Manual of Style. In fact, in literary fiction, there are good, strong, arguments for breaking the rules. Language is just the building material; how you use it is what matters.

That said, let me also say that most writing, especially most expository writing, is a matter of exchanging information and opinions, and some adherence to what is known as Standard English is often best for that. And every magazine, journal, academic field and paying editorial market will adhere to a style sheet. As always in writing, it’s paramount to know your audience and use the format they recognize as holy.

Deborah Lee Luskin is novelist, essayist and educator. She is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of the award winning novel, Into The Wilderness. For more information, visit her website at

15 thoughts on “My Writing Bible

  1. Wonderful post! Like you, I’m not aware of all the grammar rules; usually I just go by what sounds right. When it comes to grammar, I just “know” somehow. With that said, my inherent hunches are no replacement for real knowledge and having a good book of the fundamentals is imperative for a (good) writer. Thanks for sharing your insight and your “bible.”

  2. Wonderful post – fantastic. I am a fundementalist in faith and an agnostic in grammar – but I do firmly believe to break the rules of grammar you need first to know the rules of grammar – it’s like “sinning boldly” – lots of fun. I am a junkie when it comes to grammar books and this handbook is next on my list – thanks for making grammar fun.

  3. I, too, have my Harbrace book, Grammar and Composition, Complete Course,copyright 1957 and used for all four of my high school years. It sits next to my Roget’s and Strunk & White’s. It also includes Speaking and–get this–Listening! Now that is something everyone should be taught still!

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