December 21st, 2005
-Or and -er endings / a holiday-card goof?
by Barbara Wallraff
Richard Dudman, of Ellsworth, Maine, writes: “Can you give us a rule on ‘-or’ versus ‘-er’ endings? I know that it’s ‘investor,’ ‘bettor’ and ‘advisor.’ But what about ‘gambler,’ ‘tester’ and ‘pipe fitter’? Is the difference just arbitrary, or is there some logic to it?”
Dear Richard: Before I comment on one of the examples you gave, why don’t I answer your question. There used to be logic underlying the difference between “-or” and “-er” endings, but it has been crumbling for a thousand years or so. The words you’re asking about are called “agent nouns,” and these correspond to verbs: an investor invests, a gambler gambles and so on. In Latin, the “-or” ending turns a verb into a masculine agent noun. (Feminine agent nouns end in “-ix.”) In Middle English, the “-er” ending did roughly the same thing. Therefore, agent nouns we long ago got from Latin ended in “-or,” and words from Middle English ended in “-er.”
Teresa Ligenza, of Northville, Mich., writes: “On my family’s holiday card, I used a cute photo of my two smiling kids in front of our stocked pantry. In my haste to get the cards ordered, I jotted the following greeting down:
Dear Teresa: That depends on what you’d like your friends to fill with favorites. The holidays? “Holidays” is plural -- so “them,” a plural pronoun, would be the right word if that was what you meant. Let’s try it out: “Happy Holidays. Fill them with favorites!” Maybe it’s just me, but when it’s there in black and white, I find the idea kind of strange.
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.