I got stuck on whether I should say I'm a frequent flier or flyer. I came across an article on writingexplained.com and it confirmed pretty much what I suspected, that there's no consensus on the flyer/flier preference. Interestingly, it mentioned the AP Stylebook changed its spelling for one who flies from "flier" to "flyer" in 2017.

In its 2017 style book, however, it completely reversed this stance, citing that most airlines don’t follow the practice outlined by AP.
Article link

So even more exasperating is that after learning one way, we never know when public opinion or a recommendation will swing, as it did only last year with at least one style guide.

Because every time I write something I don't want to spend ten minutes reading debates and histories on orthography, I wanted to come up my own simple mnemonic or rule. It seems to me that multisyllabic verbs ending in y have an agentive suffix of -ier added to the -y. This is pretty consistent and can't see any departures as yet.

occupy/-ier
multiply-ier
qualify-ier
List of words ending in -y listed in order of number of letters

This is all good. I started thinking of short single-syllable verbs. We can leave out these class of words where a vowel precedes the final -y, because these seem to invariably end with -yer:

lay/-er
play/-er
slay/-er
pray/-er
say/-er

That leaves only a small handful of English verbs that may cause trouble in their spelling:

  • cry (NGrams attests overwhelmingly to "crier" over "cryer")

  • fry (the more common variant is "fryer" over "frier")

    Deep fryer
    Air fryer

    NGrams supports this.

  • dry (more common variant is "dryer" over "drier")
    Hair dryer
    Clothes dryer

    NGrams doesn't help as comparative adjective "drier" confounds results.

  • pry (Dictionaries accept both)
    American Heritage Dictionary and Collins English Dictionary
    (NGrams shows more results for "prier" than "pryer")

  • ply (I would expect 'a plier of his trade')
    In this case only American Heritage Dictionary lists "plyer" as a variant of "plier"
    American Heritage Dictionary
    (NGrams shows more results for "plier" than "plyer")

  • try (seems to be overwhelmingly "trier" according to NGrams)

  • spy (NGrams overwhelmingly supports "spier" over "spyer")

  • scry (NGrams shows results for "scryer", but not "scrier", arrgh, just when I see a pattern, it's broken)

These are all the ones I could find, there may be more, but as I said, there are only a handful that cause problems for me at least.

To sum up, I'd say most fall under the -ier category, with three prominent ones falling into the -yer category, these are:

dry = dryer
fry = fryer
scry = scryer

Flyer/flier is hotly contested when referring to someone who flies. An NGram search for flyer would show results for the pamphlet also, so that's a problem. However frequent flyer outnumbers frequent flier by more than double today, both in AmE and BrE. Also, many aeroplanes, boats and trains (including two American trains used circa 1999-2003) were named "flyer", not "flier", with exception of USS Flier submarine launched 1943. So probably "fly" should be added to the above exception list. Merriam-Webster says however that "flier" is more common than "flyer". There seems to be a general consensus for "flyer" to mean the leaflet/pamphlet.

The dryer/drier advice given here suggests to use "dryer" for something/someone that dries, and "drier" as a comparative adjective for "dry". I checked to see whether this follows a general rule of forming the comparative adjective. As far as I can see it doesn't. "Slyer" and "slier" are both given in dictionaries, as also are "shyer" and "shier", with the -yer form being more common according to NGrams. This advice seems pretty arbitrary to me.

If anyone knows advice they can give, I'd appreciate it. If not, hopefully this can be of use for some people. Writing this out has definitely helped me a little in organising these words into categories in my own head.

Please correct anything I've got wrong, I likely have.

Barring anything else, refer to the commonly referred to dictionary in your country.

For instance, if I were to address this in terms of US English, I would say use flier because this is what Merriam-Webster says:

variants: or less commonly flyer

(However, if I followed a specific style guide, or in-house style guide, and it went against Merriam-Webster, then I would go with what that style guide said.)

If the commonly used dictionary doesn't give guidance (and neither does your style guide), then refer to Google Ngram Viewer, limiting it to the corpus of the country in question. Barring that, pick what you want so long as you can give some kind of argument for your choice if somebody chooses to challenge you.

If you can really point to nothing that helps you in your choice, then flip a coin and use that result consistently . . .

  • Those are all good suggestions, thanks. I noticed that in Merriam-Webster although it lists "flyer" as a less common variant of "flier", it lists the pamphlet as " usually flyer : an advertising circular". Also there doesn't seem to be a difference between BrE and AmE with the term "frequent flyer", it's overwhelmingly "flyer" according to NGram Viewer. Just an observation. – Zebrafish Oct 4 at 12:42
  • @Zebrafish Yes, it's a pain. It's interesting that one version would be more common than the other only when paired with another word. – Jason Bassford Oct 4 at 14:43

I think I would advise this: If the word can have more than one common meaning, then use the form best suited for the meaning you intend. If the word only has one common meaning, then use the -ier form. Yes, "scryer" is an exception, but it is not commonly used and only refers to a person who does such a thing. This does seem to narrow it down quite a bit to a general rule:

Consider your meaning for Dry, Fry, and Scry. All others use -ier ending.

-yer forms seem to refer to meaning a person/thing that performs the action.

-ier forms seem to refer to most commonly used definition having other meanings.

examples:

Dryer = an appliance that does drying.

Drier = more dry.

Flyer = descriptive term for something that flys.

Flier = a small paper tract or distributable communication.

Scryer = one who (scries) reads/predicts the future.

I, personally would also consider the "meaning rule" for (plural) plyers/pliers but that can be debated.

  • That seems like a decently workable rule. But with the exception of "flyer", as I'm pretty sure "flyer" the pamphlet is most commonly -yer in both AmE and BrE. Drier to mean more dry makes sense if you think dryer/drier has more than two meanings, however I'll have to resist the "shy" and "sly" comparative ending of -yer. – Zebrafish Oct 4 at 12:34
  • Yes, sadly flier/flyer flies (!) in the face of this rule. The thing that flies is frequently either flier or flyer (but usually flyer when referring to a passenger on an airplane), whereas the ‘other meaning’, the handbill, in my experience is always flyer. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 4 at 13:01
  • Yes, in many cases it probably comes down to preference or choice and either would be considered acceptable. I would choose "flier" for a hand bill - my preference. I also was offering it as "advice only" just as the question asks. I do think, as a general "rule", it is worth considering. – user22542 Oct 4 at 13:13
  • Never say "always": thefreedictionary.com/flier – user22542 Oct 4 at 13:15
  • @Zebrafish - shy = shier and sly = slier. These would definitely be among the "else words" = "All others use -ier ending". It's so short and memorable too. – user22542 Oct 4 at 13:26

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