To ‘E’ or Not to ‘E’

Q. What is the difference between the suffixes “-or” and “-er”? That is, if one paints, he is a “painter,” but, if one acts, he is an “actor.” — Harry R. Wess, Sr., McKeesport, Pa.

A. The choice of “-or” or “-er” has bedeviled many painters and actors, not to mention ALL writers. Standards of spelling, like those of painting and acting, are sometimes a matter of taste.

At the school where I teach, for instance, we’ve been debating for years whether the teachers who advise our students are “advisors” or “advisers”; for now, we’re sticking with “advisors.”

I wish I could give you a simple rule to guide your “or/er” choices. I can tell you that, traditionally, words derived from Latin take “-or” endings, while words of Anglo-Saxon origin take “-er” endings.

Thus, “act,” the root of “actor,” is derived from the Latin “actus,” past participle of “agere” (to drive, do). Other Latin-derived “-or” nouns include “investor” (from “investire”), “distributor” (from “tribuere”) and “educator” (from “educare”).

By contrast, “read/reader,” “sit/sitter” and “walk/walker” are derived from the Old English words “raedan,” “sittan” and “wealcan” respectively, so they have “-er” endings.

Of course, unless you’re a Latin scholar or have time to research the origin of every word you use, this Latin/Anglo-Saxon rule isn’t very useful.

To further confuse matters, many Latin-based words have become so thoroughly Anglicized, they’ve been taken to the “ER” for reconstructive surgery, e.g. “promoter,” “digester,” “eraser.” This also applies to “painter,” which, despite its Latin origin (“pingere”), ends in “-er.”

Likewise, “arrester” seems to be winning out over “arrestor”; “vender” over “vendor”; “adapter” over “adaptor”; “imposter” over “impostor”; “corrupter” over “corruptor”; “conjurer” over “conjuror”; “adviser” over “advisor,” with most dictionaries now listing both spellings of each word.

Just for fun, let’s see whether you can choose the correct ending for each of these “er/or” words:

1. eradicator/eradicater

2. idolator/idolater

3. facilitator/facilitater

4. counselor/counseler

5. dispersor/disperser

6. lecturor/lecturer

7. detestor/detester

8. dispensor/dispenser

9. elucidator/elucidater

10. burser/bursor

—-

Answers:

1. eradicator

2. idolater

3. facilitator

4. counselor

5. disperser

6. lecturer

7. detester

8. dispenser

9. elucidator

10. Trick question! — it’s “bursar”

Copyright 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.
www.arcamax.com

 
 

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