James T. Keating’s “Writing Modern English” tackles the idiomatic, confusing and wrong

Source: Japanese Amazon

Japanese English Learners and many English teachers can greatly benefit from this logical guide to clear, modern writing

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

–Mark Twain (1835-1910) American author and humorist

How do you know if you’re doing “well” or if you’re doing “good?” What is the difference between “persons” and “people” and when is it appropriate to say “hope for” instead of “hope to?” These sorts of questions often puzzle ESL students and teachers alike because there is often not a straight answer, and when there is, there is usually an exception to the rule. James T. Keating, an editor of 25 years and a friend of mine, clarifies and illuminates these minute yet crucial differences in his Japanese Amazon No. 1 bestseller, “Writing Modern English.” Published in 2008, this is the second version of Keating’s book, which originally came out in 2000, and fills a vital niche for international students and professionals seeking clarity and precision in their English language writings.

The pages, filled with common words and phrases that cause headaches in many ESL classrooms, use sentences, labeled “Weak” and “Better” to instruct on what is idiomatically the most correct. This approach presents an effective, strong method of teaching that improves English skills without being overly negative. It also draws attention to the fact that many seemingly grammatical or logical expressions are in fact, unused or incorrect.

Keating’s book demonstrates how to use clear and simple language. He highlights five key techniques:

1. Identify subjects quickly
2. Use strong, active verbs
3. Use precise pronouns
4. Eliminate vagueness
5. Join words, sentences and paragraphs to create logical relations


What’s also unique are the chapter divisions–Keating first begins with what he calls “Avoidables,” or easy to understand and translate words, like “communicate” that should be “avoided” in certain contexts. For example, Keating points out that saying “I will communicate with you” is unnecessary when “I will call you” will suffice.

Other chapters include “Cloudy Words,” “Confusables,” “Copycats” and “Dispensables”–all following the same alphabetical format. Though the book excels in pinpointing cases that even manage to baffle many native English speakers, some of whom, for example, cannot always differentiate “personnel” and “personal,” it may suffer from this particular organization. Perhaps frequency or difficulty of concept would have ultimately been a more helpful way to arrange the entries.


Keating’s intended audience were the English-learning Japanese, but many English students, both ESL and non-ESL, could benefit from the examples and explanations found within this book. As somebody who does not speak Japanese yet, my comprehension was limited to the English language sections. I assume the Japanese translations match the precision found throughout the book. Several English teachers, particularly ESL teachers and sometimes inexperienced EFL teachers, could benefit from both this primer on best modern writing. Therefore, I will share some of Keating’s examples in my own classroom for international graduate students this fall. I’ve also encouraged the author to consider writing an updated revised version for international business English students.


Accuracy, brevity and clarity remain under-appreciated writing virtue in the academic, business and technical fields. This book provides practical guidance in demystifying writing in a first, second or third language. The clean, concise style also reflects a distinctly American aesthetic that has often become an international expectation. This fine writing style book certainly deserves a place for English teachers and writings working with Japanese English language learners–to find out more, visit his website here. I feel fortunate to have the primer on my bookshelf. Bravo, James.

How do you encourage your students to write modern English? Can you share any favorite resources for better writing and sharper thinking?

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