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What’s the rule to decide whether you add -er or whether you add -or when creating an agent noun from a verb?

Sometimes it’s -er:

  • read > reader
  • hate > hater
  • hit > hitter

But other times it’s -or:

  • meditate > meditator
  • collect > collector

3 Answers 3

72

This has been previously touched on here: “Commentor” vs “Commentator”. I'll try to expand on that.

Both -er and -or are so-called "agent noun suffixes", and Wiktionary has entries for both:

Generally speaking, -er is much more common in English (which should come as no surprise since it has deep Germanic roots, see the link) and can be easily attached to any English verb to form the corresponding noun (drivedriver, runrunner, drinkdrinker, etc.).

The suffix -or, on the other hand, comes from Latin, and is used much more seldom, basically where Latin would do it. Just try building the words drivor, runnor or drinkor, and see for yourself. In fact, Wiktionary lists only a handful of terms that were derived using this suffix, such as actor, author and sculptor, and goes on to provide the following usage notes:

English generally appends this suffix where Latin would do it—to the root of a Latin-type perfect passive participle. For other words, English tends to use the suffix -er. Occasionally both are used (computer vs. computor).

Etymonline has additional info on the origin and usage of -er and -or.

Edit: courtesy of Martha, here's a link to a post on the "Separated by a common language" blog that provides further details and addresses the differences between US and UK English:

The -or suffix is primarily found in words derived from Latin, whereas -er can be put on the end of just about any verb that involves an agent (a 'doer' of the 'action'). But Latin-derived words differ in how strongly they are associated with the -or suffix. Latin-derived verbs that end in -ate, for example, almost always take the -or suffix. So we have dictator, but not a variant dictater, alternator but not alternater.

Things are less clear-cut with other Latin-derived verbs. For example, in my job, I advise students and convene courses, and when I spell out those roles, I'm an advisor and a convenor, but when my UK university spells them, I'm often an adviser (which just looks wrong to me) and a convener. [...] The -or form is stronger in the US than the UK, though there's considerable variation within each country.

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  • 2
    There are no 'rules' — that alone enhances the richness of this language.
    – Tony
    Commented Aug 23, 2011 at 22:03
  • 4
    They both come from a PIE agentive suffix with two variants (ablaut grades): *-ter, the E-grade, meant a person who had performed some action, while *-tor, the O-grade, meant a person who generically performs some action (i.e, a professional). It's the difference between simple description (the murderer) and occupational generic (the pitcher for this game). Of course, that was in PIE. In English it's a tossup which spelling it has, but they're all pronounced the same, so the spelling is irrelevant. Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 18:48
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    +0. You write, "... basically where Latin would do it." And where would Latin do it? First conjugation: cantor. Second: splendor but responder. Third: invader. And so on. Or does it have nothing especially to do with the choice of Latin conjugation? Unfortunately, after your answer correctly mentions the Germanic -er, it seems substantially incomplete on the Latin—too incomplete to be very helpful. Regarding the sources you quote, they seem neither authoritative nor knowledgeable. I don't think that this is a very good answer; it should not have been accepted.
    – thb
    Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 12:31
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    @JohnLawler: Comments like yours are why I love this site. I wish I could bookmark/permalink a comment. Commented May 28, 2017 at 16:30
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    @MarkKCowan You can, click the timestamp. Commented Jul 5, 2017 at 13:19
15

The best rule I've found?

If you can change the word to have "ion" at the end, it is OR. If you can't, it's ER.

TeachER (can not be teachion) ConductOR (conduction) ProfessOR (profession)

I can't really think of any ER's sorry!

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    It's far from a perfect rule, however; consider investor, proprietor, creditor / debtor, ambassador, victor, conspirator, juror, and vendor among others.
    – choster
    Commented Nov 13, 2013 at 18:35
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    I agree with choster except for conspirator which can be changed into conspiration
    – user61249
    Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 19:32
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    I actually think this is a good rule of thumb. These words also tend to allow -ive suffixes. It is by no means perfect and there are many exceptions but for common words it works fairly well. act-action-active-actor, emote-(e)motion-(e)motive-motor, instruct-instruction-instructive-instructor. Note "propriet(e)", "ambassad(e)", "vict(e)" and "jur(e)" are not words, let alone verbs although we do have evict-eviction-evictor.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 1:06
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    About 40 years ago I read that for neologisms "er" should be use used for human agency and "or" for mechanisms. This rule seems to fit much of the computer terminology that has been created since then.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 17:51
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    Note, too, that Merriam-Webster reports that descrater and corrupter are more common in U.S. English than desecrator and corruptor, even though the existence of desecration and corruption would point toward the opposite preferences. And disrupter is the only form that MW gives for that noun, despite its ties to the reference noun disruption. The guideline you suggest begins to look like a Swiss cheese rule—more substance than air overall, but full of holes.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 16:58
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The final consonant of the verb is relevant, indirectly: because of the etymology of the ending -or, it is usually found after t or s. However, there is no simple rule for -or vs. -er that always gives the right ending, because there are some complications due to both etymology and analogy.

Latin agent nouns end in -tor or -sor

As RegDwigнt's answer mentions, verbs that form agent nouns in -or usually have the form of Latin perfect passive participle stems.

Latin perfect passive participle stems characteristically end in t or s. So in practice, verbs that form agent nouns in -or almost always end in -t(e) or -s(e), and form agent nouns in -tor or -sor specifically. In the context of Latin, the suffix is often given as -tor rather than as -or. (There is an unrelated Latin suffix -or that forms abstract nouns from verbs, such as error, rigor, terror).

Examples:

  • actor (Latin and English), from the Latin verb ago ("do, act"), perfect passive participle stem act-
  • possessor (Latin and English), from the Latin verb possideo ("have, hold, possess"), perfect passive participle stem possess-

You can see that these two words have the same spelling in modern English as in Latin. For complicated reasons, the corresponding English verbs have the form of the Latin perfect passive particle stems: act and possess.

-or can follow other consonants in words from French

There are agent nouns in English that end in -or preceded by a letter other than t or s. The main origin of this type of -or agent noun is French (specifically, the Anglo-Norman variety that was spoken in England after the Norman conquest). In Old French, the t in the Latin ending -atorem (as well as some other similar endings) was lost by regular sound change, the a turned into a schwa (first spelled e and then eventually lost), and as a result the whole thing ended up as -or/-our/-ur (Modern French -eur). This was taken into Middle English as an agent-noun suffix -our. A simplified example: Latin gubernator (accusative gubernatorem) became Anglo-Norman French gouvernour, Middle English governour, Modern English governor.

In fact, there was extensive spelling variation and some confusion with other suffixes of similar meaning already in French, so the Oxford English Dictionary lists not only gouvernour but also governor, governour, governur, guvernur, governer, guverner as possible spellings of the Anglo-Norman word, and couernour, couernoure, gouernowre, gouernur, gounour, gouvernour, guuernere, guuernour, governore, gouernere, governowre, gouerner, gouernor, gouernour, gouernoure, governoure, governour, governer as potential spellings in Middle English.

The ending -our was pronounced /uːr/ in Middle English and was at least sometimes stressed (Chaucer rhymes governour with flour 'flower'¹) but in Modern English, this ending came to be unstressed and its vowel became reduced, making it sound identical in English pronunciation to the -or ending found in Latin words. Along with the preexisting variation and the analogical influence of Latin -or, this made it easy for the spelling -our to be simplified in most cases to -or.

  • A large proportion of -or agent nouns only occur in legal English, where -or is used more than in regular English (often as a counterpart to -ee). For example, "deliveror" and "settlor" are basically only found in legal contexts; in other contexts, the spellings "deliverer" and "settler" are used.

  • Some -or agent nouns that are not restricted to legal English are conquer-or, purvey-or, survey-or, counsel-(l)-or, and vend-or (the last has a less common but accepted variant vend-er). These all originate from (Anglo-Norman) French nouns, but can be reinterpreted in modern English as suffixed derivatives of the English verbs conquer, purvey, survey, counsel, vend.

  • sail-or is an example of the French suffix being used on an English base, the verb sail.

There are other -or words that don't end in -tor or -sor, but most of the rest cannot be interpreted as being built directly on an English verb as a base. For example, donor, emperor, tailor, juror don't refer to people who "done", "emper", "tail" or "jure".

There seems to be sporadic use in English of the spelling -or instead of -er simply as a way of forming words with a specialized meaning, sometimes as part of technical terminology or jargon.

  • The Oxford English Dictionary entry for the word "sailor" describes it as "An altered spelling of sailer n., probably assimilated to tailor, in order to distinguish the designation of a regular calling from the unspecialized agent-noun. The differentiation, however, does not appear in our early examples, and was not fully established before the 19th cent."

  • In electronics, the form "expandor", as well as a derived term "compandor" (from compressor and expandor), has apparently been used.

It's hard to rule out the spelling -er

Ending in -t, -te, -s or -se is mostly necessary for a verb to form an agent noun in -or (with exceptions, as discussed above), but it certainly isn't sufficient.

  • Sven Yargs left a comment mentioning "disrupter" as an example of an agent noun that is commonly spelled with -ter (although the spelling disruptor also exists). Adopter, corrupter, tempter, respecter are other difficult-to-predict common spellings in -ter.

  • User and passer are always spelled with -ser.

The suffix -er is highly productive and is used to form nouns with a range of meanings. I don't think any rule based on meaning will be reliable as a guide to using -er vs. -or. To give counterexamples to some alleged rules that I've sometimes seen:

  • Words ending in -er can be animate (runner, worker, speaker, reader) or inanimate (washer, dryer, circuit breaker, holder). Words ending in -or also can be animate (administrator, director) or inanimate (elevator, insulator, ventilator).

  • Words ending in -er can be names of professions (teacher, writer, baker, publisher, typographer, undertaker), as can words ending in -or (sculptor, legislator, conductor).


¹"Appollo, god and governour / Of every plaunte, herbe, tree and flour"—"The Franklin's Tale"

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