Today on Grammar Grater, we're taking a question from Joan, a listener in Plymouth, Minnesota. Joan writes:
"I have a question about the spelling of nouns that are formed from verbs. Some end in -ER and some end in -OR. Is there a method to this madness? For example: editor, inspector, director; recorder, writer, performer, closer, eater."
The words Joan describes in her message are called agent-nouns. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, agent-nouns are persons or things that perform an action. But the nub of Joan's message is that some of these end in -ER and others in -OR. What's behind this inconsistency?
Gordon Jarvie, in the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide, defines -ER as a "highly productive English suffix giving [among other things] nouns denoting a person or doer of an action, often indicating a job or a pastime, as in singer, baker, employer, lawyer, speaker, miller, manager, photographer, reporter, farmer, teacher."
The Oxford English Dictionary describes a few ways -ER can be used. One way is to signify a person involved in or with an occupation or profession (e.g. baker or geographer). Another way is to signify a person originating or resident in a place (e.g. southerner or New Yorker). It can also signify a person or thing belonging to or connected with (e.g. third-grader or old-timer).
And Gordon Jarvie also notes that sometimes the ending becomes -AR, as in liar or beggar.
Meanwhile, Jarvie defines -OR as a "Latin agent-noun suffix, as in actor, collector, competitor, conductor, director, editor, governor, inspector, narrator, prosecutor, spectator, visitor." This also is found in the names for certain objects, like calculator, refrigerator and escalator.
As far as determining which words end in -ER and which ones end in -OR, the Oxford English Dictionary makes some historical distinctions, attributing -ER to words of English origin and -OR to words that entered English from Anglo-Norman, Old French or Latin.
Unfortunatelyyet typically for many rules in English-there are too many exceptions to create a hard and fast rule. Fowler's Modern English Usage sums up the -ER versus -OR situation as follows:
"The agent termination -ER can theoretically be joined to any existing English verb. In practice, many such words (and there are about 100 of them in common use) have -ER as a termination and others have -OR. ... Scholarly attempts to account for the distribution of the -ER and -OR forms continue to be made, but the problem remains unresolved."
And the Oxford English Dictionary explains the situation in these words:
"The distinction between -ER and -OR as the ending of agent-nouns is purely historical and orthographical: in the present spoken language they are both pronounced [the same]. In received spelling, the choice between the two forms is often capricious, or determined by other than historical reasons."
Ultimately, a lot of knowing when to use -ER versus -OR comes down to tried-and-true study and memorization.
Sources: Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie; Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Burchfield; Oxford English Dictionary
Music from this Episode: "Hardest Geometry Problem In The World" by Mark Mothersbaugh; "Money (That's What I Want)" by Barrett Strong