The Grammarphobia Blog

Odds and endings

Q: I’m an editor who works with writers at a trade journal. Why does the word for my job end in “or” while the word for someone I edit ends in “er”?

A: Suffixes, or word endings, can be a challenge. (“Suffix,” by the way, is from the Latin for “to fasten”).

We add the suffixes “er” or “or” to the ends of words to make them what are called agent nouns. (An agent noun is a name for a doer, somebody who does something.)

Here are some examples of doers: “editor,” “singer,” “rider,” “writer,” “doctor,” “auditor,” and so on. Sometimes the sound of the last syllable is spelled “or” and sometimes “er.” How do we know which one to use, and when?

In general, agent nouns with “er” endings come from old Germanic roots. So words like “sing,” “ride” and “write,” all derived from old Germanic sources, become agent nouns with the addition of “er.”

In general, agent nouns with “or” endings come from Latin. That’s why “edit,” from the Latin editus, “audit,” from the Latin auditus, and “doctor,” from the Latin docere, all become agent nouns with the addition of “or.”

This is just a very general rule. There are many exceptions (“plumber,” for instance, is ultimately derived from the Latin plumbum, but it ends in “er”).

In addition, some English words have both endings (like “adviser/advisor”). Where both exist, the “er” ending is often the older one.

In the case of some legal terms, it appears that lawyers historically have been fonder of the more pompous-looking Latinate endings than of the simple Teutonic ones.

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