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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.”

Over time the distinction has blurred, partly because some English words derived from Latin came to us by way of French, which uses the ending “-eur” instead of “-or.” But English also borrowed some “-eur” words and left them unchanged -- for example, “restaurateur.” (That’s right: There’s no “n” in “restaurateur,” but that’s another story.) We also held on to a few agent nouns ending in “-ar” -- for example, “liar.” In Middle English, “-ar” was a variant of

There are still other agent nouns about which English can’t make up its mind. These include your example “advisor,” which is one of the words we got from Latin by way of French. Dictionaries give both “advisor” and “adviser,” and neither one is considered wrong. But “adviser” is now the spelling that most authorities recommend and the spelling that’s more commonly seen in print.

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:
‘Happy Holidays 2005
‘Fill it with favorites!
‘Love, Tom, Teresa, Joe & An’
“I think I may have made a mistake. Is ‘it’ correct, or should ‘it’ have been ‘them’ -- or maybe even ‘’em’?”

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.

The word that came to your mind was “it,” a singular pronoun -- so I’d guess you were thinking of the pantry, singular, rather than the holidays, plural. If so, “it” is no mistake. At least, that’s what I’d suggest you tell anyone who asks. As for “’em,” it’s never the right choice if you’re concerned about using proper English. And by the way, happy holidays to you too!

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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