Many verbs can be suffixed by er, which makes them nouns. However, some nouns made this way refer to persons, while others refer to tools or actions. For example:

  • pay: payer (the person who pays)
  • cook: cooker (the tool used for cooking)
  • pray: prayer (the action of praying)

I haven't seen people calling a payment tool (such as Square Reader) payer. Similarly, I haven't seen people calling someone who cooks cooker. But people do call someone who teaches teacher.

So how can language learners tell, for an unknown verb, which concept it means when suffixed by er? Furthermore, by the pigeonhole principle, you can't precisely fit three concepts into one form. Are there any rules or heuristics governing er suffix?

  • 3
    The pigeonhole principle is a mathematical concept. In a natural language it is common for one word to have multiple meanings and nuances. – James K Jun 16 '18 at 16:15

You have to learn the words, one by one.

Not every verb has a noun in the form -er. For example "meaner" (from the verb "mean") Others have a specific or limited meaning, for example "seer" (from the verb see) means a fortune teller.

Often context will make it clear what meaning is intended. "Put the pan on the cooker" probably doesn't refer to a person; "The writer of the book" probably is a person.

There are a great many "-er" nouns that are not related to any verb: "answer", "ladder", "brother"

So there is no general rule. Most -er nouns are agent nouns, they mean the person or thing that does something. The particular meaning needs to be learned word-by-word.

(Words ending in -er are a cause of difficulty in some word games (such as Countdown) as they are not permitted unless specifically mentioned in the dictionary)

  • And a ladder is not a tool for ladding ... – Hagen von Eitzen Jun 16 '18 at 14:46
  • I'll add something to that effect, Also "answer", "brother" and lots more examples. – James K Jun 16 '18 at 15:56
  • Oh, bother. Now I'm in a dither. ;) – Jason Bassford Jun 16 '18 at 15:57
  • Get out quickly before it dithes you! (No, that is not a word in common use I made it up just now for a joke.) – James K Jun 16 '18 at 16:01
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    Related to, but not formed as "swear"+ "-er" as an agent noun. Similarly Ladder is not an agent noun from lean, any ancestor word. – James K Jun 16 '18 at 21:29

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