Why singer, but actor? Why doctor, but dentist? Why customer, but client? There seems to be no logic to the variation in endings for agent nouns.
An agent noun, a word that identifies a person’s occupation or profession, place of origin or residence, or other association, or a device that performs a task, generally signals its function with a suffix. However, various endings are possible, and though the spelling of such words, because of their ubiquity, is often obvious, no set of rules is always reliable.
Some people posit that the -er ending is found in words derived from Germanic sources, while the -or ending denotes Latinate words, but that’s not always true. (For example, adapt is from Latin, but its agent noun is adapter, not adaptor.) Alternatively, the -or ending appears in words referring to figures of authority (director, governor, inspector), but employer, manager, and teacher are counterexamples.
(Occasionally, an agent noun has more than one spelling, as with adviser and advisor. It’s common practice in such cases to always prefer, for consistency, the first option listed in the dictionary, although in this case, doing so means that a writer will write adviser yet will spell the adjectival form advisory.)
Another ending for agent nouns, -ist, might at first seem to consistently correspond to a positive value judgment, in that we associate it with scientist and words for those in scientific specialties (biologist, physicist), as well as powerful people (industrialist, philanthropist), but note the neutral bicyclist and the negative bigamist. Likewise, notice the variable status of people identified by the terms cineast (also spelled cineaste), enthusiast, and pederast, as well as the tongue-in-cheek neologism ecdysiast.
Some endings for agent nouns are often associated with pejoratives, though there are exceptions. For example, beggar, burglar, and the archaic pedlar end with -ar, but so do registrar, scholar, and vicar. Bastard, coward, and drunkard, but steward and wizard. Mongrel and wastrel, but colonel and sentinel. Less common endings that might be associated with positive or negative words are -ant (accountant, but vagrant) and -ent (client, as well as agent itself, but indigent).
Other rare examples are -aster (poetaster), which originally neutrally denoted partial resemblance but came to be exclusively derogatory; -ista, which is employed in lightheartedly pejorative terms such as fashionista (there’s also barista, borrowed from Italian, which in turn borrowed bar from English); and -nik (beatnik, peacenik), which in Russian or Yiddish is neutral but acquired a negative connotation in American English during the Cold War.
As mentioned in the definition of “agent noun” above, that term also refers to inanimate objects. However, no consistent classification is possible for this subgroup: Why washer and dryer, but refrigerator? As revealed in these examples — and the many terms for human agents referred to above — agent nouns follow no rules of etymology or connotation.
Want to improve your English in 5 minutes a day? Click here to subscribe and start receiving our writing tips and exercises via email every day.
Recommended Articles for You
Subscribe to Receive our Articles and Exercises via Email
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!