agentive suffixes: -er and -or, and a little on grey/gray

A member of our Psychology Department wrote the other day to ask about distractor and distracter. In her experience, the former is AmE, but BrE can have either (as she found in the OED). But this isn't quite true. Look up distractor in the American Heritage Dictionary and you'll find "Variant of distracter". Both variants are available in both dialects, but is there more to it than that?

I was intrigued by this query because of other niggling (for me, at least) -er/-or distinctions. Here, I'm talking just about the use of these letter combinations as agentive suffixes--i.e. endings that turn verbs into nouns meaning 'someone who VERBS'. Of course, there are other -er and -or endings that differ in AmE and BrE (centre/center, color/colour), and those are what you find if you try to look up AmE versus BrE differences in spelling -er and -or words. But that's an unrelated issue that we'll just ignore for now.

So, both -er and -or are agentive suffixes. The -or suffix is only primarily found in words derived from Latin, whereas -er can be put on the end of just about any verb that involves an agent (a 'doer' of the 'action'). But Latin-derived words differ in how strongly they are associated with the -or suffix. Latin-derived verbs that end in -ate, for example, almost always take the -or suffix. So we have dictator, but not a variant *dictater, alternator but not *alternater.

Things are less clear-cut with other Latin-derived verbs. For example, in my job, I advise students and convene courses, and when I spell out those roles, I'm an advisor and a convenor, but when my UK university spells them, I'm often an adviser (which just looks wrong to me) and a convener. (Incidentally, Blogger's allegedly AmE spellchecker likes the -er forms.)

So, is this a dialectal difference, or just personal perceptions? (It's not a pronunciation difference, except in those cases in which one exaggerates the pronunciation in order to give a clue to the spelling.) I've searched for advisor and adviser on a range of university websites from the UK and the US, and here's what I found:

US Universities
adviser advisor
U of Massachusetts (Amherst)10%90%
U of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign)27%73%
Baylor University31%69%

UK Universities

U of Sussex38%62%
U of Manchester36%64%
U of Edinburgh49%51%

So, it's probably not my imagination that the -or form is stronger in the US than the UK, though there's considerable variation within each country. The fact that I started out at the university with the strongest preference for -or might account for my strong preference for it. There's also the question here of whether this distinction can be attributed to regional differences within the countries. We see the strongest -or preference in the US in a northeastern university. Did I get that strong preference because of my university experiences, or had it already been inculcated in me by growing up and learning to spell in the northeast? In the UK, we see the weakest -or preference in a Scottish university. Does that extend to other Scottish universities? I'm not going to spend my Saturday finding out! But you're welcome to!

Before we leave this topic, let's raise the question of whether these spelling differences are meaningful. There's a general principle at work in language (sometimes called the Principle of Contrast) that if there are two different forms, they must have some different significance. This is why it is difficult to find exact synonyms in a language--once you introduce a new word for something, people start to assume that it must give some different information from that given by the old word for that thing (otherwise, why bother to coin or borrow the new word?). The Principle of Contrast (and avoidance of synonymy) is so strong that it can be extended to spelling variations. So, for example, I was once party to an American discussion of grey versus gray (the latter being the more common AmE spelling, but the former being acceptable as well), with people discussing whether grey or gray was a darker colo(u)r. (The discussion began here; search the American Dialect Society archives for 'grey and gray' to get the whole string). Because there are different forms, and because people like to look for differences in meaning and maybe because they have been exposed to one form more in one type of context than another (e.g. grey in clothing catalog(ue)s, but gray in a box of crayons), people often believe that the words have different definitions. This discussion has happened (for about 100 years!) at the OED, too, where there's a note at the 1989 grey/gray entry that reads:
With regard to the question of usage, an inquiry by Dr. Murray in Nov. 1893 elicited a large number of replies, from which it appeared that in Great Britain the form grey is the more frequent in use, notwithstanding the authority of Johnson and later Eng. lexicographers, who have all given the preference to gray. In answer to questions as to their practice, the printers of The Times stated that they always used the form gray; Messrs. Spottiswoode and Messrs. Clowes always used grey; other eminent printing firms had no fixed rule. Many correspondents said that they used the two forms with a difference of meaning or application: the distinction most generally recognized being that grey denotes a more delicate or a lighter tint than gray. Others considered the difference to be that gray is a ‘warmer’ colour, or that it has a mixture of red or brown (cf. also the quot. under 1c below). In the twentieth century, grey has become the established spelling in the U.K., whilst gray is standard in the United States.
So, do advisor and adviser mean different things to you? Or does one just seem misspelt?


  1. The Scots equivalent of the Chairman of a committee is the Convenor (which my wife wishes the PC English would adopt instead of the risible "Chair"). The Edinburgh equivalent of the Oxbridge "porter" is the "servitor". What makes me wonder is all those people who attend conferences being called attendees when they are clearly attenders.

  2. I wonder if BrE wouldn't be more likely to still differentiate between sexes? In this case, use a form like 'advisoress.' ("advistrix?")

    I note that while I recognize that 'gray' is more standard, I like 'grey' better for reasons which are unclear to me, but might be partially explained by a belief that the latter better represents my pronunciation.

  3. My instinctive reaction to your closing question was "They mean exactly the same thing, but one looks better." But thinking about it more, I realized that "adviser" looks very wrong in an academic setting, but makes a little more sense (somehow) in other contexts. A student has an advisor; an elected official might have advisers. An advisor has a form of power over the advisee (higher status), whereas an adviser is more of a support position (equal or lower status). But I wouldn't go to the mat for either definition.

    I too am curious about regional preferences, but also not going to spend my Saturday looking them up. However, when I was a copyeditor at one of the other Five Colleges, we allowed only "advisor." I believe all five schools share this rule in official publications, and they do try to match each other in some usage matters, so that may or may not account for UMass' 90% preference. I suspect that the more elite a U.S. school considers itself to be, the more likely it is to use "advisor."

  4. jhm, no, BrE isn't more likely to differentiate between the sexes. I wonder if you're relying on the stereotype that BrE=old-fashioned?

    Julia B, I don't share your intuitions about academic vs. political advis{o/e}rs, but am interested to hear them.

  5. Although adviser would often seem like a misspelling to me, I also recognize it as a separate word, and Julia B. characterized the difference exactly. Further contrasts:
    Advisors are assigned; advisers are chosen.
    An adviser's competence is judged by his employer, an advisor's is more professionally based.
    To me, "academic adviser" is misspelled, while "environmental impact adviser" is not.

  6. In short, advisor is a specialized technical term, and adviser is the normal agent noun from the verb advise, and can be freely created at any time.

    Nice catch about the special influence of -ate, which is semantically empty in English but does for the most part pull -ator with it. I say "for the most part" because I checked the first 200 ghits for dictater and found five or six clear examples of its use in the sense 'one who dictates', one in a letter by Charles Darwin that he had dictated to his wife, another in a book on stenography. The most recent use was 1965; the others were much older. (The other ghits were of course spelling errors.)

  7. Both spellings look fine to my BrE eyes - and both mean the same to me :)

  8. I'll be more explicit. Has anyone ever seen "employor", "attendor", "portor" or the like?

  9. To me "advisor" is someone who helps you with a project or a thesis and "adviser" is someone who gives advice to important people, like kings and presidents. General people who offer advice are "busybodies" ;-)

    Recently I have been exploring the archives of the Irish Times news paper, and I've discovered some interesting spellings including "to-morrow" and "reportor".

  10. Hats off to Mr Malone. Reportor. Like raptor, perhaps?

  11. > Has anyone ever seen "employor", "attendor", "portor" or the like?

    "Employ", "attend", "port" seem to me all to have come into English from French.

    Where words have come more directly from Latin, "-or" appears to be the more natural agentive form (to this Brit who had to learn Latin a long time ago!)

    Did you ever learn Latin, Lynne?

  12. I agree with John. To my American ears, an advisor is a title, whether it be academic or political, while an adviser is a generic term for one who advises.

  13. I went back for another look at the article in the Irish Times from 1947, and it could just be a "reporter" with a badly printed "e". Unfortunately, their search thing seems to do some sort of fuzzy matching, so searching for "reportor" also returns articles with "reporter" in them.

  14. What do you do if, like me, you start finding that advisor and adviser both look WRONG? I have to say my preference is for advisor, which I find looks slightly less wrong.

    Lynne, you have also here, I think, explained to me why in another post the other day I automatically typed "bloviator" rather than "bloviater." Then again, it also is an awful lot like aviator, which would equally explain that, I suppose.

  15. As an American newspaper copy editor, I always make it "adviser," which is Associated Press style. The same goes for "gray," except that the dog is a greyhound.

  16. There are some non-Latin words with '-or': 'sailor' displaced 'sailer' for no good reason.

    I (Irish) would never use 'gray', except in surnames, where 'Gray' seems to predominate over 'Grey'.

  17. Good point on sailor. (Sailer is also a legal spelling in Scrabble, if anyone cares.)

  18. Echoing Julia B., I think that the -or version is more likely to be used in a situation where it has a specific technical meaning, while the -er version is more general, used as a descriptor rather than as a specific, designated term (if you see what I mean).

    Going back to Lynn's original example, I think it's no accident that this query about "distractor" came from a psychologist. In experimental psychology, "distractors" are used all the time (they are task-irrelevant stimuli in an experiment that the person has to ignore), and are described as such in Methods sections. It has become a technical term. Whereas "distracter" might be used to describe, I dunno, a cell phone while you're driving.

  19. Advisor is a misspelling, stemming from the correct spelling advisory. I think eventually we are going to have to wave the flag on this. But not yet.

  20. I've been in exactly the same shoes as your psychologist colleague when it comes to "distracter" vs. "distractor", used in a technical sense as mentioned above.

    My own strong preference was to use "distractor", until we started to publish some of this work and found that every reviewer and editor of our first manuscript thought this was completely incorrect. Since then we've stuck with "distracter", but we are definitely in the minority: (for the particular task we have been using there are only ~140 google hits for "picture-word interference" distracter versus ~1100 for "picture-word interference" distractor).

    But now "distracter" seems just fine to me in this context; I no longor prefor "distractor".

    Advisor/adviser: I use these in the same way as John Cowan and others who commented above.

  21. The Oxford Guide To English Usage, section 1.35.5:
    A functional distinction is made between -or and -er in the following:
    * accepter one who accepts / acceptor (in scientific use)
    * adapter one who adapts / adaptor electrical device
    * caster one who casts ; casting machine / castor beaver; plant giving oil; sugar (sprinkler); wheel
    * censer vessel for incense / censor official
    * conveyer one who conveys / conveyor device
    * resister one who resists / resistor electrical device
    * sailer ship of specified power / sailor seaman

    Of these, AHD and MWC10 seem to prefer "caster" over "castor" for the sugar and wheel senses. Oxford says, re: sugar, "Both are right. The spelling castor sugar used to be the prevailing one, but caster sugar seems to be more usual now, perhaps because it is used by some sugar manufacturers on their packaging."

  22. my organization went from using advisor to addviser and back (the staff advises small businesses) (AmE)

  23. As someone who edits 'advisor' and 'adviser' (as in 'a Student Advisor'), I see the -or ending as denoting the more concrete form (proper subject). The -er ending is simply descriptive, as in 'The Student Advisor is an adviser to students'.

  24. One more US/UK difference: conjuror/conjurer (tendency, not absolute).
    Looks like the technical adaptor spelling is mostly UK and losing ground.

    More -or technical/-er general pairs: the Law terms promisor and grantor.

    Interestingly, MW prefers assigner while AHD prefers assignor.

    Another non-Latin -or: bettor.

    That's it, I'm done.

  25. Ahem, One more UK/US difference: conjuror/conjurer

  26. Another pair: Sorcerer and sorceror. The latter is often (usually?) thought to be a mere misspelling, but it seems common enough that it should be considered a minor spelling variation instead. ("sorcerer -sorceror" = 2450K GHits; "sorceror -sorcerer" = 384K GHits) I'll leave speculation about the reasons for the populatity of this error/variation to someone with more linguistic knowledge than I have.

    "Mentor" occasioned some considerable discussion at a few weeks ago. Specifically, there were some who objected remarkably strongly to construing (parsing? 8-) the "-or" as a suffix and creating "mentee". (See here).

  27. Re: adviser/advisor. Personally, i always use "advisor," for reasons i can't quite fathom right now. Profesionally, i'm in an interesting position. I do proofreading for the employee newspaper at a large research university. Because we're a news publication, we follow AP style, which, as Dan Puckett points out above, requires "adviser." On the other hand, a quick search for each spelling on the university's website shows that "advisor" is used on campus websites ~72% of the time. In doing my proofreading each week, i need to keep a sign on my desk reminding me which spelling to use, otherwise i'd correct my correction right into an error.

  28. As far as I'm concerned, "adviser" is just a misspelling. Unfortunately, it's also the preferred house style for the publishers I proofread for. So it's also a word that makes me see red, splutter to myself, and bite my tongue. I occasionally have a little rant in the margin, which goes un-acted-upon but makes me feel better.

    "Sorceror" looks so much better (and feels better to write) that I'm not surprised it's a common misspelling. I've got to remind myself every time I write it.

  29. German really only uses -er. Could there be a connection to English here? Maybe so. I see -or endings as more "French".

  30. I always associated grey with things of a living nature, or of a gentler tone (I typically describe animal coats as being "grey" when it applies (i.e. they're obviously not red, brown, purple, or other non-grey colours); a light desaturated sky would be grey.

    On the other hand, gray describes things such as cement, concrete (especially buildings in big cities), foreboding skies (though "dark grey" still holds greater appeal to my aesthetic sense), metal (steel gray), and that area in discussion between black and white.

    Additionally, I'm a USer but I much prefer the CWE spellings, as well as the UK constructs and compositional styles. They're much more engaging than most US writings.

  31. Regarding "promisor", I've also seen it "promissor";

    I understand the differences stated here between -or and -er; definitely agree that -er is more of a Germanic ending where -or fits Latin derivates better.

    Sorcerer only sticks as "proper" since I've seen it that way.

    And "Old-Fashioned"? As long as we can keep equivalence, bring it on/bring it back. This new world weighs heavily upon my weary soul...


  32. Actually, "-er" is not the only suffix used, words stolen elsewhere have different endings: Diktator, Akteur, Editor. But yes, "common german words" only seem to use -er as agent suffix.

  33. I prefer "adviser" but have got[ten] used to "advisor" over the years. But can I be cheeky and ask you, as an American, why you don't write "advizer"?

  34. Hard to tell if that's a cheeky question or an ignorant one! American English uses -ize just in the places where the Oxford English Dictionary does. -ize is not an Americanism.

  35. It was cheeky :) More in the vein of making fun of the English language's idiosyncrasies than AmE.

  36. There was recently a mini-scandal in Britain over a character named Adam Werrity. Werrity, a personal friend of the then Defence Secretary Liam Fox, seemed to be using his friendship illicitly for personal gain: the episode ended with Fox being forced to resign.

    One of Werrity's sins was to hand out a very official-looking business card describing himself as "Advisor" to Fox, even though he held no such formal title.

    What's interesting, for the purposes of this discussion, is the extreme reluctance of many British media outlets to entertain the "advisor" spelling, even when explicitly quoting a source (the business card) that used it -- examples include here and here.

    This, by itself, might be considered due to general sloppiness, perhaps combined with autocorrect. Some bloggers, however, created parody business cards, generally resembling the original but with the blogger's name substituted for Werrity's. Here's an example. Even such parodies, which generally rely on a close resemblance to the original to create their effect, "corrected" the spelling to "advisor".

    This suggests to me that there is a great degree of discomfort in Britain with the "advisor" spelling.

  37. UK newspapers generally change original spellings to suit their own style book--something that drives Americans in the UK a bit crazy, since they change the names of organizations and places to suit the newspaper's style too.

  38. For me both advisor/adviser mean basically the same thing it boils down to the root word advise. Yes one does look better as far as spelling goes but that is only a trivial matter. In response to Freddy 'er' does come from a German background whereas 'or' is Latin. The Romans first invaded Britain they spoke Latin later Britain was invaded by the Germans (Saxons, Jutes & Angles). Seeing that Britain was invaded by both Latin and German speakers will account for both 'or' & 'er' being used in the English language.


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)