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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