Cross-posted at BFFProofreading

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.

So what’s the rule? How do we know which one says what one and what one says who?

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 -arius 1-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, -arium 1-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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Comment by Legal-Ease Proofreading on January 15, 2016 at 11:10

I thought a few of my fellow "word snobs" (I use the term affectionately, I am one!) might enjoy this past entry from my literary blog. It deals with this very subject of what's become of the English language. It contains more than a few grains of truth. :) "I kvetch, therefore I am -- A grammarian's lament."

Comment by Legal-Ease Proofreading on January 15, 2016 at 10:13

Latin is challenging, April! I'm going to have to tackle a good bit more of it in the near future, because I'm leaning toward doing my PhD program in Ancient Civilizations rather than English literature. And I take the "word of the year" junk anymore about as seriously as I do "person of the year." But we won't get me started on that! ;) By the way, I see you are reading "Song of Roland," that's a seminal work in my studies in Medieval-to-Victorian epics and poetry! I sent you a friend request. :)

Comment by April Thompson on January 14, 2016 at 9:57

Oh, Mary Ann, I completely agree about "text speak." And emojis. I even hate the word, and I about spat when OED announced their "word of the year" was an emoji last year. I'm learning Latin, and I swear the endings will be the death of me. Good luck with Italian!

Comment by Legal-Ease Proofreading on January 14, 2016 at 9:30

As an English and writing teacher, both at the secondary and college level, I can second what D. Sanders said below. Don't even get me started on what cell phones have done to the mother tongue, with all the "lol's" and "y r u sad" junk. I do love the "fought a war to win the right to have more complicated noun constructions" comment, though, that's hilarious! Now if I could just get my years of French out of my head long enough to learn Italian...

Comment by April Thompson on December 5, 2015 at 20:23

Since the Vikings invaded, D Sanders.

Comment by D Sanders, RDR, CRR on December 1, 2015 at 12:31

English grammar is going to poop in a handbasket!

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