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We know that the employer employs the employee and that the tutor tutors the tutee, but how do we know if the shooter shot the shootee?

Is there a simple way to determine if an agent noun can be made into the object of the agent noun's action? In some cases, this is plainly obvious. We have runners but definitely not runnees and we have jumpers but not jumpees. There ought to be a way can we easily determine if the shooter shoots the shootee since a shootee is intuitively the person who gets shot by a shooter.

Note: Since the meaning of shootee can be intuitively determined by any English speaker, it isn't technically incorrect according to a descriptive linguist, but how would a prescriptive grammarian feel about it?

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What do you mean by a grammarian? A 'scholar of grammar and syntax' is a descriptive linguist. –  StoneyB Oct 27 '12 at 19:01
    
@StoneyB, sorry, I forgot prescriptive. Edited. –  Nick Anderegg Oct 27 '12 at 19:03
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You are asking a few questions here, it would be helpful to focus on your core query. How can one determine if the opposite of an agent noun exists?: look in a dictionary. [H]ow would a prescriptive grammarian feel about it?: too subjective. –  Mark Beadles Oct 27 '12 at 19:09
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The suffix -ee is productive, and shootee is morphologically sound. However, not all words that can get created theoretically also do. If there were a need for the word shootee, it would exist. But it looks like we are perfectly happy just using victim. As to runnees and jumpees (I suppose from your question that you understand that, but I'd like to spell it out nonetheless), intransitive verbs don't have direct objects per definition. Employers employ someone; trainers train someone. But runners just run; jumpers just jump. –  RegDwigнt Oct 27 '12 at 19:09
    
"How would a prescriptive grammarian feel about it?" Probably the way William Strunk Jr felt about what he considered "unnecessary" neologisms[1]: natteringly negative. [1] NOTE : Actually, it's this remark I'm referring to: "Dependable. A needless substitute for reliable, trustworthy." His point is that this is a misuse and there's no need to substitute another word when there are already other acceptable options. –  user21497 Oct 28 '12 at 1:03

3 Answers 3

The -ee / -er distinction turns out to be a (rare) example of Ergativity in English.

As it says in the link,

Adding the suffix -ee to a verb produces a label for a person who is the Absolutive of the verb – i.e, a person who is either the Direct Object of a Transitive verb, or the Subject of an Intransitive verb.

Intransitives:

  • Bill has retired → Bill is a retiree.
  • Bill has escaped. → Bill is an escapee.
  • Bill is standing. → Bill is a standee.

Transitives:

  • They employ Mary → Mary is an employee.
  • They inducted Mary. → Mary is an inductee.
  • They appointed Mary. → Mary is an appointee.

Fun, huh?

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I really hate standee, which I see on capacity signs every time I catch a bus, usually paired with sitting. –  Henry Oct 27 '12 at 20:45
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As discussed in the further answers, there is no guarantee that applying these rules will give a word considered acceptable. Die is (apart from usages with cognate objects) strictly intransitive, but there are no diees. And perhaps GW should have used suicidees rather than suiciders when he verbed suicide, which is probably strictly intransitive in most areas of the world. And certainly, attendee bucks the trend as attend is transitive but with the person not the direct object. –  Edwin Ashworth Oct 27 '12 at 21:24
    
Exactly. Like English derivational morphology generally, it's quite irregular, and dependent on (the history of) the roots it's attached to, as compared to the ones it doesn't occur with. –  John Lawler Oct 27 '12 at 21:30
    
Is this strictly a matter of ergativity? Bill can retire, or I can retire him; Bill can stand, or I can stand him (on his feet); Bill can escape, but I cannot escape him, in a causative sense. –  StoneyB Oct 27 '12 at 21:36
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Nice point about the ergative behavior - I had not considered that there indeed is an intransitive usage. I would only note that this is limited to person referents. –  Mark Beadles Oct 28 '12 at 14:04

There are two ‘rules’ here:

  • one ‘rule’ is that a verb which takes a personal object—direct or indirect, but in some sense the recipient of an action—can produce a noun designating such a recipient by appending -ee (or -e if the verb already ends in e): shootee, tutee.

  • another ‘rule’ is that a verb which denotes a change of personal state can produce a noun designating the person who suffers (or enjoys) that change with the same suffix: retiree, escapee.

These ‘rules’ will produce ‘well-formed’ words, which will certainly ‘exist’ in some sense; but whether use of these words will prove ‘acceptable’ within any specific speech community is another matter, for which there is no ‘rule’ but ‘Run it up the flagpole and see who salutes’.

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Transitive or ditransitive verbs that can take a human direct object (or human indirect object, in the case of distransitives) are possible targets for the -ee suffix. The grammar of this suffix depends not just on the syntax but upon semantic criteria.

  • If the verb is not transitive, there is no object and no -ee. EDIT: As @John Lawler points out, there are indeed intransitive usages like escapee.

  • If the verb is intransitive and the subject is human, then -ee corresponds to the subject.

  • If the verb is transitive but can't take a human object, then -ee is not appropriate.

  • If the verb is ditransitive like give or tell, then the -ee corresponds to the indirect object.

In all the above cases, the -ee will be understood semantically, but it may not be considered proper or formal. E.g. givee is understood as the person being given, but recipient is preferred.

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