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Before discussing this noun suffix conundrum, I want to make a quick tangent. Nowadays, there is a lot of frustration with blogs that “bury the lede.” For example, posts with recipes often begin with protracted stories about Grandma’s favorite pastimes, or summers we spent in the cabin and…oh, the memories! Five minutes later, you FINALLY get to the recipe that Grandma made at the cabin all those summers ago, which was what you wanted to read in the first place! I’ll try not to do this with my posts going forward. For rules, I’ll just give a quick introduction, state the rule up front, then offer the explanation afterward. Like so:

If you get a noun that ends in the sound \ǝr\, ask for the derivation. If it is English (or has an English combining form), use the noun suffix -er. If derived from Latin (or has a combining form originating in Latin), spell with the noun suffix -or. If derived from French, and the sound \ǝr\ is stressed, use the noun suffix –eur.

As always, my caveat about spelling rules not being 100% infallible applies. So now, the commentary.

The noun suffix –er

The noun suffix -er is mainly derived from English. It also has quite a few meanings. These meanings and examples include the following.

Occupationboxer, hairdresser, carpenter
Relation(Baby) Boomer, elder, preschooler
Native or residentLondoner, Shanghailander, Mainer
Having or owning somethingdouble-decker, three-wheeler
Doing somethinggardener, lifter, thrower
Is something foreigner, Southerner

The noun suffix –or

In contrast, the noun suffix -or originates in Latin, but then moved into French, and then English. This suffix also has a much simpler definition: “one that does a (specified) thing,” according to Merriam-Webster Unabridged. In my estimation, this suffix is also used for more, well, “formal” words. Here are some examples of what I mean.

Legal wordsgrantor, lessor, creditor, conservator, escheator
Medical and anatomical wordsextensor, receptor, abductor, exteroceptor, immunomodulator
General science wordstransistor, illuminator, incinerator, accelerator, capacitor

The noun suffix –eur

French plays a big role in the \ǝr\ conundrum too. Though not officially observed as a suffix entry in Merriam Webster Unabridged, the noun suffix –eur has a similar meaning to the above suffixes, particularly the meaning “one that does a (specified) thing.” In contrast to its English and Latin comrades above, and with very few exceptions, the French-derived suffix –eur is stressed on pronunciation, giving these words that certain French flair. Consider these examples.

Words with stressed –eurchauffeur, connoisseur, entrepreneur, litterateur, monsieur, provocateur, raconteur, voyageur
Words wher -eur is unstressedamateur, derailleur, grandeur

The optional story

My official spelling career was actually bookended by this exact rule. The only word I missed in my first school bee’s written test in fourth grade was juror. I spelled it “jurer.” The word’s link to legal culture would have told me that the suffix was –or…if I even knew about such a link in fourth grade! Four years later, I was lucky enough in 1989 to spell my last word – spoliator – correctly to clinch my victory at Scripps. The word’s definition isn’t particularly legal, and I did not ask for the word in a sentence. To me, the word simply looked better with an –or, so that’s what I spelled. Years later, I read a disgruntled former speller-turned-lawyer’s blog post about the National Spelling Bee. One of her few positive observations was that she actually had seen spoliator in a legal brief. This was one of the few winning words she could relate to.

Photo credit: “London-3-March-08-024” by Martin Pettitt