I can find references to each in many online dictionaries, but few will reference both of them. So the question remains:

What is with the difference in spelling between "Locator" and "Locater"? Is one proper and the other a popular misspelling, or is there a nuanced difference between the two words? (Or, even more interestingly, both)

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, Helmar, Drew, jejorda2, Phil Sweet Sep 6 '16 at 17:45

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  • 1
    Th full OED lists both as separate entries. Locator is obviously the main one (it's at least 5 times more common in Google Books, for example), but locater seems to have two very specific senses: 1) U.S. A person who makes a claim to land or mining rights, or takes up a grant of land, by establishing and registering the boundaries of the claim or grant and 2) a device or system used for determining the position or location of something. Both of which definitions explicitly point out that locator is an exact synonym anyway. – FumbleFingers Sep 6 '16 at 14:48
  • @FumbleFingers and that is precisely the kind of answer I was expecting to find on this site when I made a Google search for "locater vs locator". And I have read the question you proposed as a duplicate. It answers the question, but it lacks details specific to this instance of that rule. I mostly asked this question not because I needed an answer, but because it would provide a place people could find the answer if they did. – FireSBurnsmuP Sep 6 '16 at 15:01
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    I don't really understand what you mean there. I doubt anyone would seriously maintain that the -er version specifically applies to the "land rights" context. It's probably just that Anglophones had no particular use for the term in other contexts, except that Americans in particular had more interest in that specific sense a couple of centuries ago when they were more likely to be "simplifying" all spellings. In the long run, that one never caught on, but if you do encounter it, it's probably an old text with that specific sense (or a "misspelling" :). – FumbleFingers Sep 6 '16 at 15:17
  • 3
    For the reasons given at the beginning of my answer below, I don't think that this question is a duplicate of the cited question (which I read with great interest). Indeed, the only way it could be a duplicate is if a general rule governing nouns with "-or/-er" endings can be enunciated that reliably and predictably covers the specific case that the poster asks about ("locator/locater")—and I don't think that one has been. Consequently, I have voted to reopen this question. – Sven Yargs Sep 6 '16 at 20:05

The rules outlined in answers to the earlier question What’s the rule for adding “-er” vs. “-or” when forming an agent noun from a verb? are sufficiently opaque or exception-riddled that I think anyone who wants to follow majority preference in the spelling of an -or/-er word should probably not rely on a generalized rule for guidance. In the case of locator/locater—or any other specific -or/-er noun pair—you can use Ngram search results to get a general idea of which spelling is more widespread in published writing in the Google Books database. Here is the Ngram chart for locator (blue line) versus locater (red line) for the period 1800–2005:

The difference in usage rates looks somewhat more dramatic if we focus on the shorter period 1920–2000:

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2011) corroborate the seeming preference for locator over locater. The Eleventh Collegiate, which always lists what it considers the more common variant first, has this:

locator also locater n (1784) ...

For its part, American Heritage has a full entry for locator but limits locater to a mention at the end of its entry for locate:

locator n. One that locates, as a person who fixes the boundaries of mining claims.

This treatment suggests that some specific uses of locator may require that spelling, while others may be acceptable with either variant spelling.

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