Question: Occupational nouns (butcher, sailor, musician, etc.) have various suffixes in English (er, or, ee, ant, etc.). Is there a set of rules to form occupational nouns from the verbs or their object (butchering, sailing, etc.)?

Explanation: For example, what are the rules to go from this to this: Leadership / Leading ----> Leader ...And not 'Leadian'

In the same way, when we 'invent' occupational nouns, how do we know that some are more correct than others? For instance, how do we know that 'low-self-esteemer' sounds more correct than 'low-self-esteemian'?

I have considered finding a regular expression part of speech tagger to give me a list of noun constructions. However, these do not have a separate category for 'occupation nouns'. More importantly still, they would not explain the rules for forming occupational nouns from verbs/objects, but only for identifying them.

So where are the rules for forming occupational nouns from verbs or objects?

  • 6
    -er vs. -or have been covered before. Several times over, in fact, as you can see by browsing the agent-noun-suffix tag. -ian is a separate story, but as you can see from the dictionary entry, it's not an agent noun suffix to begin with. A musician is not someone who musics, a lesbian is not someone who lesbs, and a Colombian is not someone who colombs. Likewise, a leadian would be someone related to lead; not someone who leads.
    – RegDwigнt
    Dec 11, 2012 at 23:06
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    And a finger is not someone who fings. Nor is a costermonger someone who costermongs (or costmongs). And an accordion is not something that accords.
    – Robusto
    Dec 12, 2012 at 2:33
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    @Robusto: I know you are cracking jokes, but as a courtesy to future readers who might not realize that: yours is precisely my point. The -er in finger (from P.Gmc. fingraz) is not an agent noun suffix, either. Neither is the first -er in costermonger (see costard); the second actually is (monger, formerly manger, comes from the now-obsolete verb mangian, "to traffic, trade").
    – RegDwigнt
    Dec 12, 2012 at 9:43
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    @Robusto The chords on the bass side of a modern accordion do accord, hence the name: The oldest name for this group of instruments is actually harmonika, from the Greek harmonikos, meaning harmonic, musical. Today, native versions of the name accordion are more common. These names are a reference to the type of accordion patented by Cyrill Demian, which concerned "automatically coupled chords on the bass side" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accordion Dec 13, 2012 at 19:54
  • 1
    @MichaelPaulukonis: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joke
    – Robusto
    Dec 13, 2012 at 20:06

1 Answer 1


An occupational noun derived from a verb usually ends in -er or -or and means "one who does [verb]". E.g.: jumper, eater, runner, walker, sailor etc.

An occupational noun that is derived from another noun will usually end in -ian. For example, librarian is derived from the noun library; there is no verb to library.

You could say that occupational nouns that end in -ian mean something like "one who works at/for/with [noun]". For example, a musician is "one who works with music" (not "one who musics" because there is no verb to music).

There are exceptions, but I think this is a good rule of thumb.

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