A Word, Please: A language book gift guide for every type of word nerd

Woman on top of bookshelf reading
June Casagrande offers a holiday list of books on language for grammar-savvy readers.
(Asia Pietrzyk / For The Times)

For certain nerdy types (you know the ones), language books make great gifts. Unlike mysteries and memoirs that are quickly devoured in e-book form — then forgotten — informative, fun grammar and writing guides double as reference books. You can wrap one up and put it under the tree knowing your recipient will reach for it again and again for years to come.

Here’s my 2023 language book gift guide for every type of word nerd.

For the rule follower: Most people, even grammar-savvy types, don’t know about usage guides. These reference books look like dictionaries, with alphabetized entries for words and language concepts. But instead of listing definitions, they offer expert insights on usage matters. Look under E to find a discussion of when “everyone” takes a singular or plural verb. Look under D to learn that a “double genitive” like “a friend of Joe’s” is not an error even though it doubles up on the possessives. Look under C to learn about “compose” and “comprise.” Two great usage guides for the grammar buff on your list: “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage” and “Garner’s Modern English Usage.”

For the Grammar Girl fan: The most beloved grammar podcaster of all time, Mignon Fogarty has a new book out just in time for Secret Santas. In “The Grammar Daily: 365 Quick Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl,” Fogarty delivers one easy, practical writing tip per day, every day for a year. On Day One, you’ll learn that the possessive of McDonald’s is McDonald’s. A few weeks later, you’ll learn that even though “anxious” usually carries a negative connotation, you can use it to mean “eager.”


For the smart stickler: You may have never heard his name, but you’re probably already a Benjamin Dreyer fan. As the longtime copy chief at Penguin Random House, Dreyer is the reason that so many books you’ve read over the years were, in fact, readable. In “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style,” he uses his ice-pick wit and a brainy bent to deliver lessons on how to use English like a pro. Your giftee will read it cover to cover, laughing out loud, then keep coming back for refreshers.

“Like so many other aspects of English, phrasal verbs are easy to use but hard to understand,” writes grammar expert June Casagrande.

Nov. 14, 2023

For the introvert: Imagine your favorite word nerd sitting in a public park behind a sign that says, “Grammar Table. Vent! Ask a question! Capitalization complaints.” Unfathomable, right? So let your language buff live vicariously through Ellen Jovin, who’s been setting up her Grammar Table in parks across the USA since 2018. Jovin weaves her fun, frightening and sometimes uplifting encounters into practical grammar lessons in her book “Rebel With a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian.”

For the language sleuth: “The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier,” by Bonnie Trenga should have made a much bigger splash when it came out in 2008. In it, Trenga constructs mini mysteries to investigate common causes of bad writing in chapters like “The Peculiar Puzzle of the Vague -ing Word” and “The Delicious Drama of the Weak Verb.” But don’t let the cute and cozy tone fool you. Though this book is accessible to high school and even middle school students, Trenga’s deep expertise guarantees some eye-opening writing lessons for adults of every experience level.

For the dirty-worder: “You’re at the zoo checking out some exotic-looking little horseish animals, wild asses of some sort, likely from somewhere in Asia. When your child asks what that horsey is you stifle a giggle as you tell them. It’s an ass! An ass you might ride, no less.” For that smutty-yet-studious someone on your list who delights in stuff like this, grab some unmarked brown paper and wrap up a copy of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” by John McWhorter, a funny, fascinating and surprisingly highbrow examination of the naughtiest terms in English.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at