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The rule is there is no rule.

This post is cross-posted at Best Foot Forward Proofreading. If you have proofreading needs, check it out!



While English has a reputation for being a lawless thug of a language, there are indeed rules that govern it. Because English is, in the phrasing of John McWhorter, our magnificent bastard tongue, they can have more exceptions that you can shake a stick at. However, there are still rules to guide English speakers and writers. Usually.

Recently, I came across optioner, which ought to be (and I changed to) optionor. That started me on a journey to try to track down a rule, trick, or scheme to show when a verbed noun takes an -er or an -or suffix. The vast majority of English words take an -er when making the verb into a noun: bake becomes baker and travel becomes traveler. But for a sizeable minority of words, the noun form takes the -or suffix: act becomes actor and guarantee becomes guarantor. Just to make things interesting, a handful of words take an -ar suffix:  scholar, liar, and bursar; although that ending is far more common when forming adjectives rather than nouns: triangular, spectacular, and linear.

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There are many theories, ideas, and suggestions for figuring it out. I’m drawn to the idea that -or words have Latin roots, while -er words tend to be Germanic in origin, or at least have been filtered through Germanic languages before being adopted by English. Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary lends credence to that idea in its etymology information for the suffixes:

Middle English -or, -our, from Old French -eor, -eur & Latin -or; Old French -eor, -eur, partly from Latin -or; partly from Latin -ator, from -atus -ate + -or

Middle English -er, -ere, from Old English -ere; akin to Dutch & German -er, Old High German -āri, Old Norse -ari, Gothic -areis; all from a prehistoric Germanic suffix borrowed from Latin -arius1-ary; in sense 1, partly from Middle English -er, -ier, -ere, -iere, from Anglo-French -er, -ere & Old French -ier, -iere, from Latin -arius, -aria, -arium1-ary; in sense 2, partly from Middle English -er, -ere, from Middle French -ere, from Latin -ator (suffix denoting an agent) — more at -ary, -or

However, it’s not a perfect rule. Even in the examples above, guaranty comes to English from High German through French. How many exceptions can a rule have before it gets downgraded to a suggestion?  The Oxford  Dictionaries helpfully inform us, “There are no hard and fast rules as to when these nouns have an -or ending and when they are written -er, but what we can say is that there are fewer such words ending in -or!”

The only sure rule to ensure accuracy is to double check with a reliable dictionary. Better yet, have a proofreader check for you.

*British English is apparently far more likely to take the -er suffix, but we Americans fought a war to win the right to have more complicated noun constructions.

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