Ask Language Log: -er vs. -or

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From Matthew Yglesias:

A few of us at work were talking about why it's adviser and protester but professor and and auditor and after bullshitting around for 10 minutes I thought "maybe I should ask a linguist." Have you ever blogged on this?

I don't think that we have, though you can find well-informed discussions elsewhere, e.g. here or here/here. The executive summary is that -er is (originally) Germanic while -or is (basically) Latin, often via French.

But this doesn't help much with the particular examples you cite, since all four words are from Latin via French. Like most things about English morphology and spelling, the full answer is complicated, and also more geological than logical. But the OED seems to have the whole story — lifted from the depths of the discussion, the key point is that

Many derivatives [formed with -er as an agentive suffix] existed already in Old English, and many more have been added in the later periods of the language. In modern English they may be formed on all vbs., excepting some of those which have [Latin- or French-derived] agent nouns ending in -or, and some others for which this function is served by ns. of different formation (e.g. correspond, correspondent). The distinction between -er and -or as the ending of agent nouns is purely historical and orthographical.

For a (much) longer treatment — you have been warned — press onward.

Let's start with the etymology given for -or, from an OED entry that was updated in 2004.  Here's the background:

Partly < classical Latin -ōr-, -or (Old Latin -ōs), suffix of nouns of condition < the same Indo-European base as ancient Greek -ως, and partly < classical Latin -tōr-, -tor, suffix of agent nouns < the same Indo-European base as ancient Greek -τωρ.

The majority of Middle English words with this ending are borrowed via Anglo-Norman, Old French, or Middle French. Latin ō gives in early Old French a sound represented in writing by o or u , hence onor , onur for classical Latin honōr- . In Anglo-Norman this developed to ou , while in Central French eu ultimately became the usual form.

Then we get a bunch of -or subcases, which I'll present in slightly shortened form:

(i) Such nouns of condition now spelt with -or as existed in Middle English, such as error n., horror n., liquor n., pallor n., tenor n.1, were formerly frequently spelt with -our .  […]

(ii) There are three varieties of agent noun formation:

(a) Those representing Latin agent nouns in which the agent suffix was not originally preceded by a vowel, as actor n., assessor n., author n., captor n., censor n., confessor n., doctor n., elector n., extensor n., factor n., flexor n., inventor n., lictor n., oppressor n., pastor n., possessor n., professor n., rector n., sculptor n., sponsor n., successor n., transgressor n., tutor n., victor n.1 These are of different ages, going back to Old French words in -or , -ur , Anglo-Norman words in -our , cognate with French –eur , or Latin words in -or . So far as they existed in Middle English, they were then spelt -our ; they are now all conformed to the Latin spelling in -or .

(b) Those representing agent nouns which in classical Latin ended in -ātor , -ētor , -itor , -ītor and which came down in living use into Old French. These terminations were regularly reduced from -ātōr- , etc., to (disyllabic) -eor , -eur , Anglo-Norman –eour , which became in French (monosyllabic) -eur and in Middle English -our , and thus fell together with those from simple -ōr- in (a). Examples are barrator n., conqueror n., donor n., emperor n., governor n., juror n. (To this group also belongs saviour , which has preserved the vowel before -our and is the main word of the group in which -our is kept in British spelling; […]) To these may be added agent nouns formed in French or Anglo-Norman on the verb stem, on the analogy of those in which -eor , -eur , -our , etc., represented classical Latin -ātōr- , etc., as grantor n., purveyor n., surveyor n., tailor n.1, warrior n. From lack of evidence it is sometimes uncertain whether the agent noun was already formed in post-classical Latin in -ator , -itor , or in French after these suffixes had been reduced to -eor and -eur , Anglo-Norman -our .

(c) Those representing agent nouns in -ātor , -ētor , -itor , -ītor , -ūtor , adopted in later times in French, or in English, which retain t , appearing in French as -ateur , -iteur , etc., and have now in English the same written form as in Latin, e.g. administrator n., agitator n., creator n., curator n., dictator n., equator n., gladiator n., imitator n., legislator n., navigator n., spectator n., translator n., vindicator n.; orator n., procurator n.1, senator n.; auditor n., creditor n., editor n., janitor n., monitor n., servitor n., executor n. These are of different ages: some from Old French or Anglo-Norman (in which case they formerly had -our , as creatour , creditour , dictatour , oratour , servitour ); some of later formation immediately from Latin, which have had the -or form from the first.

OK, now onward to -er. The OED warns that "This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1891)", but I don't think that the basic picture will have changed.

The basic source is

Middle English -er(e, -ar(e, Old English -ęre (Old Northumbrian often -are), forming ns.

You will probably want to pass over in silence the discussion of the earlier history, but here it it is how it starts:

… represents West Germanic -âri:—Germanic -ârjo-z, whence Old High German -âri (Middle High German -ære, modern German -er), and (with change of declension) ON. -ari (Old Icelandic -are, later -ari, Swedish -are, Danish -ere). The related and functionally equivalent West Germanic -ari (Old Saxon -eri, Dutch -er, Old High German -ari, -eri, Middle High German -ere) = Gothic -areis:—Germanic type -arjo-z (which by phonetic law would prob. have become in Old English -erge, in Old Norse -ri) has in Old English coalesced with this. […]

There are then a number of subcases:

1. In its original use the suffix -ārjo-z was added (like Latin -ārius) to ns., forming derivative ns. with the general sense ‘a man who has to do with (the thing denoted by the primary n.)’, and hence chiefly serving to designate persons according to their profession or occupation; e.g. Gothic dômareis, Old Norse dômari judge, < Germanic *dômo- judgement, doom n.; Gothic bôkareis, Old English bócere scribe, < Germanic *bôk- book n.; Old High German sangâri (modern German sänger), Old Norse sǫngare, Old English sangere (Middle English songere) singer, < Germanic *sangwo- song n.   Of this type there are many specially English formations, e.g. hatter, slater, tinner. Where the primary n. ends in -w:—Middle English -ȝe:—Old English -ge, the suffix assumes the form -yer (in Middle English -iere, -yere), as in bowyer, lawyer, sawyer; and, either after the analogy of these or by assimilation to French derivatives in -ier (see -er suffix2), it appears as -ier suffix   in certain other words of Middle English date, as brazier, clothier, collier, glazier, grazier, hosier. The English words of this formation not referring to profession or employment are comparatively few: examples are bencher, cottager, outsider, villager. With these may be compared a class of words chiefly belonging to mod. colloquial language, and denoting things or actions, as header, back-hander, fiver, out-and-outer, three-decker. A special use of the suffix, common to the modern Germanic langs. though scarcely to be found in their older stages, is its addition to names of places or countries to express the sense ‘a native of’, ‘a resident in’, e.g. Londoner, New Yorker, Icelander. With similar notion, derivatives in -er have been formed upon certain English adjs. indicating place of origin or residence, as foreigner, northerner, southerner.

Now comes the part that makes everything even more confused than it would otherwise have been, leading in particular to adviser and protester:

2. Most of the ns. which in early Teutonic gave rise to derivatives in -ārjo-z, also gave rise to wk. vbs. in -jan or -ôjan, to which the former stood related in sense as agent nouns; thus Gothic dômareis judge, served as the agent noun to dômjan to judge. Hence, by analogy, the suffix came to be regarded as a formative of agent nouns, and with this function it was added to verbal bases both of the weak and the strong conjugation. Many derivatives of this type existed already in Old English, and many more have been added in the later periods of the language. In modern English they may be formed on all vbs., excepting some of those which have agent nouns ending in -or, and some others for which this function is served by ns. of different formation (e.g. correspond, correspondent). The distinction between -er and -or as the ending of agent nouns is purely historical and orthographical; in the present spoken language they are alike pronounced /ə(r)/ , except that in law terms and in certain Latin words not fully naturalized, -or is still sounded /ɔː(r)/ . In received spelling, the choice between the two forms is often capricious, or determined by other than historical reasons. The agent nouns belonging to vbs. < Latin ppl. stems, and to those formed with -ate suffix1, usually end in -or, being partly adoptions from Latin, and partly assimilated to Latin analogies. But when the sense is purely agentive, without any added notion such as that of office, trade, or profession, function, etc., -er is often used; cf. inspector n., respecter n.; projector, rejecter. In a few instances both forms of the agent noun are still in current use, commonly without any corresponding distinction in sense, as asserter, assertor; sometimes with a distinction of technical and general sense (often however neglected) as accepter, acceptor. The Romanic -our, -or of agent nouns has been in most cases replaced by -er where the related vb. exists in English; exceptions are governor, conjuror (for which -er also occurs); in special sense we have saviour, but in purely agentive sense saver. In liar, beggar, the spelling -ar is a survival of the occasional Middle English variant -ar(e. The agent nouns in -er normally denote personal agents (originally, only male persons, though this restriction is now wholly obsolete); many of them, however, may be used to denote material agents, and hence also mere instruments; e.g. blotter, cutter, poker, roller, etc.

There's more, but I'll spare you.



  1. Dick Margulis said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 8:35 am

    Still . . .

    An editor writes an editorial, but an adviser writes an advisory. So there's still a great deal of support for advisor.

    Traditionally, an imposter (stress on first syllable) worked in a customs house and an impostor was a fake, but now the first word has so fallen into disuse that the latter word is often spelled imposter.

    The New Yorker would have us say that someone who sells is a vender, and I can't really argue against the logic of it, but it still looks wrong to me.

    I'm waiting to receive an email that says, "I'm an auther in need of an editer."

  2. Joseph F Foster said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 8:43 am

    Seconding Mr. Margulis I note that my professorial position included considerable advisorial duties and activity, so I was an advisor.

  3. Lara H. said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 9:03 am

    I always write advisor and understand both forms to be acceptable.

  4. John Baker said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 9:17 am

    As earlier commenters indicate, both "adviser" and "advisor" are seen. It's particularly confusing in financial regulation, where those who advise on trading in securities are registered as investment advisers, but those who advise on trading in commodities are registered as commodity trading advisors.

  5. Morph O. Logy said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 9:31 am

    I'm still looking for the "geological" explanations noted in the third graf.

    [(myl) Here you go.]

  6. Ed Vanderpump said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 9:39 am

    Has there always been an equal use of imposter/impostor (cf protestor / -er)? Not sure if it was mentioned here.

  7. Gabe Ormsby said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 9:59 am

    I've been wondering about this for a while, in part from an obliquely related issue around "mentor." Being mostly descriptivist in my sympathies, I nonetheless find myself fighting an idiosyncratic war against "mentee" as the complement of "mentor." I think I react so strongly because the use of "mentee" evinces an utter cluelessness as to the origin of the term "mentor." So, back to the topic at hand: In the imaginary case that English had a verb "to ment," meaning to teach, guide, or counsel, would the person menting be a mentor or a menter?

  8. Dick Margulis said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 10:06 am

    @Gabe Ormsby: Someone who burned out at menting would be demented. Someone who used to hang around a menter would be an experimenter.

  9. cs said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 10:12 am

    It seems the default nowadays is to use "-er" if there isn't already a standard term. Which I guess is restating what it said in the excerpt from OED: "In modern English they may be formed on all vbs…"

    So if we create a new verb "to ment" it would have to be menter I think.

  10. Robert Coren said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 11:16 am

    @Dick Margulis: My mother strongly objected to the spelling imposter for a faker, insisting that it meant the older, tax-related word. As a result, the -er spelling still triggers my Inner Prescriptivist.

  11. Robert Coren said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 11:18 am

    Next up (or not, depending on the patience of writers and readers alike): -ant vs. -ent (e.g., indignant, independent).

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 11:19 am

    Slight variant on the situations where -or and -er forms seem to co-exist in English. How many situations are there where a more obviously undomesticated suffix co-exists with a domesticated one? The one instance I can think of is Frenchly-spelled "poseur" co-existing with orthographically-domesticated "poser." (The latter admittedly has other senses as well as being synonymous with "poseur.") Are there other instances parallel to this one?

    It is possible that lexeme-specific irony (the affectation that might be perceived in using the undomesticated spelling is exactly the sort of thing a poseur might do) is relevant here, but of course there are other words like "entrepreneur" that have been successfully domesticated (and do not to my ear sound affected/pretentious to use) without anyone bothering to domesticate the suffix. Even with the -or/-er situations, do we think they are stable over time, or are they more likely to be evidence of a long-term shift in progress which will ultimately reach a new equilibrium where one variant (probably -er) is overwhelmingly dominant?

  13. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 12:38 pm

    In legalese there is a tendency to attach -or endings even to Germanic roots, e.g. trustor, settlor.

  14. Ken Miner said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 1:48 pm

    About twenty years ago some comic on NPR created "sneakors" (the footwear; pronounced [ˈsni:ˌkorz]) and had a lot of fun with it. If I remember correctly, "sneakors" were prestigious sneakers. It got picked up and now I think it's a brand name.

  15. bratschegirl said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 1:53 pm

    Dick Margulis wins the Interwebz for today!

  16. Eneri Rose said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

    I have the same question about the suffixes able and ible. I can understand the spelling of invincible, where the i might be needed after the c to keep it soft, but I cannot see the logic of other words such as, deductible and detectable. I always have to look up words with these endings.

  17. Xmun said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 2:52 pm

    The root problem is the silly idea that words (with very few exceptions) have only one correct spelling and that any alternative spelling is thought to be wrong. We ought to goe back to the olde Idea that we may wryte wordes in whatever spelling we lyke.

  18. Mr Punch said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

    My business card says, "Advisor"; I guess it's a kind of made-up professional title, like Realtor.

    [(myl) FWIW, COCA has "adviser" at 18.56 per million and "advisor" at 5.52 per million; the BNC has "adviser" at 15.31 per million and "advisor" at 2.59 per million; the Strathy Canadian corpus has "adviser" at 9.48 per million and "advisor" 12.58 per million.

  19. Bloix said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 4:10 pm

    And let's not forget ster, as in webster, teamster, maltster, barrister, seamstress. It seems to be defunct, except derogatorily, e.g. huckster, shyster, gangster, hipster, bankster.

  20. Brett said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 4:44 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: The "lexeme-specific irony" you mention is the only reason I use "poseur." Moreover, I also give "poseur" a faux-French pronunciaiton, and I would consider it a different word from "poser."

  21. maidhc said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 5:56 pm

    "multiplexer/multiplexor" is obviously a word of fairly recent coinage (c. 1950). Google Ngrams shows -er taking an early lead, but -or picking up around 1960 and maintaining a steady presence. -er peaks around 1990 and then shows a marked dropoff. Caused by the increased use of packet switching, perhaps?

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 6:35 pm

    In many U.S. jurisdictions, a lawyer's formal license to practice will give his/her "job title" as "attorney and counselor/counsellor at law." I don't have my various suitable-for-framing certificates from the various jurisdictions where I am admitted actually up on my office wall – they're unframed and in storage somewhere — but I think I have licenses with both spellings, even though it's not as meaningful as the lama/llama distinction (and I couldn't tell you which jurisdiction uses which without digging out the documents and looking). "Counseler," OTOH, is not a plausible variant, at least in that context.

  23. peter said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 6:49 pm

    Bloix: I don't believe the -ster ending is usually derogatory. I have worked in companies that employed people to run bids for government licences, a post called a bidmeister. Likewise, the director of a research competition can be called a gamemaster. The German meister seems to denote a post more powerful than if the English word were used.

  24. chris said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 8:51 pm

    @peter: I don't think that -master is necessarily related to -ster. A gamemaster is distinct from a gamester (and not just by a higher degree of mastery). There's an implication of supervision (e.g. postmaster). ISTM -master is a reduced form of magister, like "master" itself, but I don't know the etymology of -ster.

    Bloix might be right about the derogatoriness though — oldster and youngster, despite having directly opposed denotations, manage to *both* be derogatory. On the other hand, roadster, not so much (as far as I know). Hipster didn't start out derogatory (I think) and maybe not gangster either.

  25. Eric P Smith said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 9:47 pm

    @Eneri Rose: As I understand it, -able and -ible are as follows.

    The ending ‑able in most older adjectives corresponds to the Latin ending ‑abilis. A Latin adjective in ‑abilis always comes from a Latin verb in ‑are (a so-called first-conjugation verb). Most older adjectives in ‑able come to us through French from Latin, and the pattern is always exactly the same. An example is 'demonstrable', from Latin 'demonstrabilis', "that may be shown", from Latin 'demonstrare', "to show".

    English adjectives ending in ‑ible generally come in the same way from Latin verbs in ‑ēre, ‑ĕre and ‑ire (verbs of the second, third and fourth conjugation respectively). An example is 'tangible' from Latin 'tangĕre', "to touch". To know your -ables from your -ibles, you have to know your Latin.

    In addition however English has a productive suffix, -able, which can be stuck on to just about any verb. An example is 'liftable' from the English verb 'lift'. These newer adjectives may never have seen any Latin in their lives. And it's always -able, never -ible.

    Hope this helps.

  26. Gabe Burns said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 10:36 pm

    I know that the context of this article is deeper than this, and focused on etymology rather than practical use, but it reminded me of a rule-of-thumb that I was taught as a young spelling bee participant: If the root verb has an -ion form, the agent noun typically uses -or. Otherwise, it uses -er. Hence, since action is a word and singion isn't, one who acts is an actor, and one who sings is a singer. Of course there are exceptions to this, but I'm wondering if the history of the -er/-or suffixes as discussed here lines up with the history of -ion in such a way as to support this rule.

    [(myl) Let's try applying the suggested rule to the word lists in the OED's background notes for -or . It works for 25 examples (giving some latitude to the lack of semantic correspondence in cases like action/actor, caption/captor):

    actor, captor, confessor, elector, extensor, factor, flexor, inventor, oppressor, successor, transgressor, administrator, agitator, creator, curator, dictator, equator, imitator, legislator, navigator, translator, vindicator, orator, auditor, editor

    and fails for 31 examples:

    assessor, author, censor, doctor, lictor, pastor, possessor, professor, rector, sculptor, sponsor, tutor, barrator, conqueror, donor, emperor, governor, juror, purveyor, surveyor, tailor, warrior, gladiator, spectator, procurator, senator, creditor, janitor, savior, monitor, servitor


  27. Rebecca said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 10:43 pm

    Re the derogatory nature of -ster. I think trickster started out derogatory but in the context of trickster tales is more admirable. I used to think Napster was name for a cat (the logo's inspiration), which would not be derogatory, but it turns out it was the founders childhood nickname because of nappy hair, so…. Well, hamsters.

    Another area of attitude: some musicians are -ists and some are -ers. Some players of the harp, but not the big orchestral ones, insist rather indignantly on being called harpers instead of harpists, because "harpist" (or maybe the orchestral harp) is considered kind of hoity-toity.

  28. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 11:27 pm

    Associated Press style insists on adviser in preference to advisor. So a company with "advisors" in its official name might issue a press release about how a particular financial advisor was recently promoted, and AP style dictates that the title would be given as "financial adviser" if the press release is used in the newspaper or on a news site. AP will, however, spell the company name as the company prefers.

    If AP produces a story about college advising, the professors who advise students will be called advisers.

    I don't know if AP style is affecting the occurrence rates of adviser and advisor in Google searches, but copy from AP might be distorting overall statistics if a corpus relies heavily on U.S. newspaper stories.

  29. sivilyslare said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 12:42 am

    We play this word game at school called One Up! ( and when we're debating whether or not a word is a valid play, we often stumble into this etymological labyrinth, and often never know what actually is true, so we've effectively legalized most -er words, excluding common exceptions (tailor, beggar, etc.), so seeing this, and learning the etymological roots for our word game problems is really a treat. Thank you!

  30. ardj said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 1:07 am

    @Eric P.Smith:
    The adj. ‘able’ has encouraged the use of -able by ‘form-association', and even led to -able displacing -ible, both “in words that have come through French, or that are looked upon as formed immediately on an Eng. verb” (referable, tenable); although the word ‘able’ is, of course, not the suffix.

    -able’s use in forming adjectives from verbs is nowadays always passive but early words were often active e.g. ‘comfortable’, that gives comfort., strengthens, supports: it is in fact a very comfortable word. Bizarrely the OED instances one of these as ‘convertable’ but steadfastly refuses to show anything but the regularly-formed ‘convertible’

    An interesting duo is: defensable / defensible The former is older, from French from Latin defensare; but -ible from L. defensibilem, defendere started to replace -able end-15C (in Fr & Eng.), routing defensable entirely by 1700. (Both forms now archaic in Fr., ceding to défendable regularly formed from défendre which is from L: defendare.) Would ‘runcible’ be a modern coinage by Mr Lear in -ible ?

  31. ardj said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 1:09 am

    @chris & @peter:
    ‘meister’ and ‘master’ of course, even in German, come from the Latin magister. The suffix -ster however is Germanic. My OED (1989) says it is originally a W.Germanic form for feminine agent nouns, a derivative probably of OTeut. -stro forming nouns of action (and corresponding to the masculine -ster or -star).

    In OE -estre was freely used to form agent nouns corresponding to the masculine -ere, modern -er. Alas, it seems to have nothing to do with ‘sister’.

  32. Rodger C said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 12:10 pm

    Regarding ambiguities in -ster, cf. Walt Kelly's villainous character, Molester P. Mole.

  33. BZ said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 12:36 pm

    Doesn't -ster denote femininity? I seem to remember that the name "Baxter" originally meant "female baker". Is hamster a female hammer? Is Webster another word for Spiderwoman?

  34. Bloix said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 1:37 pm

    According to online sources, a hamster is not one who hams. However, a lobster (orig lopster) is one who lops.

  35. Matt_M said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 8:20 pm

    @BZ: it seems that in Middle English, the -ster suffix was already being used in a gender-neutral way, although possibly appearing more commonly on names of professions that were commonly open to women. So baxter/baker, webster/weaver didn't necessarily indicate gender at the time that surnames were being adopted in England.

    Online Etymology Dictionary: -ster

  36. Randy Hudson said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 9:28 pm

    -ster seems to have neutral to positive connotations in music. The SOED app (which has a convenient wildcard search) lists funkster, popster, rockster, songster, soulster, swingster, and tunester. Songster goes back to Middle English. Most of the others are obviously modern and generally of U.S. origin. (Some seem like the kind of word that Variety magazine would have slung.) 'funkster' definitely has positive connotations.

  37. Robert Coren said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 10:51 am

    @Rodger C: But Mole's character also appeared (perhaps originally?) as Mole McCaroney, intended as a caricature of Sen. McCarran (a setup for the eventual emergence of Simple J. Malarkey, a wildcat with a remarkable resemblance to a certain Senator from Wisconsin).

  38. Guan Yang said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 11:21 am

    The President of the United States has a Council of Economic Advisers and a Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

  39. Aaron Toivo said,

    November 20, 2015 @ 7:10 pm

    and fails for 31 examples:

    assessor, author, censor, doctor, lictor, pastor, possessor, professor, rector, sculptor, sponsor, tutor, barrator, conqueror, donor, emperor, governor, juror, purveyor, surveyor, tailor, warrior, gladiator, spectator, procurator, senator, creditor, janitor, savior, monitor, servitor

    Not that it changes your point, but "possessor", "professor", and "procurator" are on the wrong list; "tutor" also, if you count "tuition" as its -ion form.

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