Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Slippery Suffix -er (Survey)

MA stands for morphological awareness, which involves understanding the internal structure of words, including knowledge of affixes and roots. It is a type of linguistic insight. Read more about MA.

In a longitudinal study of growth curves across grades 1-6, Berninger, Abbott, Nagy, and Carlisle (2010) found that MA grew rapidly across grades 1-3 and continued to grow--more slowly--through grade 6 (at least). In contrast, growth in phonological awareness tapered off by third grade for most students. Growth in orthographic awareness (awareness of wrong-looking spellings, for example; the ability to store, form and access orthographic knowledge, knowledge of "legal" and "illegal" letter order, etc.) continued beyond third grade, especially for expressive knowledge. More pertinent to vocabulary growth, they found that students who have an understanding of derivational morphology are more likely to develop a larger vocabulary, compared to peers who do not understand the morphosyntactic principles of English words. This finding confirms prior research on the relationship between derivational morphology and vocabulary growth (see, for example, Anglin, 1993).

This makes sense, because derivational suffixes have the potential to change the part of speech and meaning of the base to which they are added. They create a different word. For example, the word boy is a noun but the derivational suffix -ish creates the adjective boyish (no longer a noun, no longer a boy--could be a girl, man, etc.). Derivations are often nuanced, abstract, academic. Learn more at Derivations and Syntax. To develop breadth of word knowledge, children must gradually understand how derivational suffixes work.

Buffalo Public Schools
We teach the suffix -er in primary grades. We teach two types of the suffix. The derivational suffix -er creates an agent noun, 'one who.' With the delightful teacher-created word tree at left, children are shown the transformation from dance (the verb) to dancer (the noun/agent/person). This same derivational suffix can also form an object-as-agent, as in cooler ('that which cools').

A second function of the suffix -er is inflectional. Unlike derivational suffixes, inflectional suffixes do not create a different word; they just create another form of the same word. They do not change the part of speech of the base word to which they are affixed. When added to an adjective, the inflectional suffix -er creates another adjective with the same basic meaning, but of greater degree. So, adding the inflectional suffix -er to the adjective warm creates the comparative adjective warmer.

A third, and far less productive function of the suffix -er, is to create a sense of jocularity, as in soccer. There are very few words of this type, but here are a few more. (Read the story of the word soccer at this link.)

A fourth possible function of -er, one that theoretically flows from Old English, was to create a verb characterized by small repetitive motions: stammer, flicker, flutter, shiver. If so, this function no longer exists; it is not productive; we cannot express stammer as stam(m) + -er. Read more.

Students need to learn to think analytically about the two main functions of the suffix -er, to better understand word formation and meaning. Teachers might have students sort the derivational -er from the inflectional -er, as begun here:

-er (one who)      -er (that which)      -er (more)            -er (not a suffix)
noun                    noun                      adjective            
thinker                   bobber                    greener               summer
buyer                     blender                   rougher               her

Resources: To find lists of words ending with the letters er (suffix or not), scroll down on this page to the hyperlinks listed under Morphology. There are two websites that apply, More Words and Word Searcher. To determine whether any given word ends with the suffix -er, try 

Now to the survey of the slippery suffix -er: Do the two words share the same suffix? Answers are shown below the survey. The survey has closed.
If the survey does not display properly, click the question (a hyperlink).

1. colder -- speaker: No. The  inflectional suffix -er in colder creates the comparative form of cold, an adjective. The derivational suffix -er in speaker creates a noun (an agent, one who).

2. seer -- fortuneteller: Yes. Both words end with the derivational suffix -er, creating an agent noun. The American Heritage Dictionary defines seer as 'one who sees' and orthographic awareness would tell us that seeer just looks wrong. Rules of spelling support this type of awareness: When a base (in this case, see) ends in a vowel, and we want to add a suffix that begins with a vowel (in this case, -er), we must first drop the vowel at the end of the base word; then we add the suffix. (Read about seer at

3. thinker -- dreamer: Yes. Both words end with the derivational suffix -er, creating an agent, a noun.

4. faster -- sweeter:  Yes. Both words end with the inflectional suffix -er, creating a comparative adjective.

 5. computer -- singer: Yes (and no, in another sense). Both words end with the derivational suffix -er, creating a noun, but the -er in computer generally implies a nonperson and the -er in singer generally implies a person. This is where morphology and semantics intersect with context.

6. steamer -- burner:  Yes. Both words end with the derivational suffix -er and in each case, the -er creates an object as an agent, not a person.

7. deer -- slipper: No. Deer does not contain a suffix at all, but slipper contains the derivational suffix -er, creating an agent noun, an object that "slips on" easily.

8. stronger -- taller:  Yes. Both words end with the inflectional suffix -er, creating a comparative adjective.

9. hammer -- hamburger:  No. Hammer does not contain a suffix.  Hamburger does; it apparently got its name from Hamburg, Germany, home of the hamburger steak. Michael Quinion provides interesting details on the origins of hamburger. Less likely: The suffix -er in hamburger may indicate jocularity (read more).

10. butter -- toaster: No. Butter does not contain a suffix at all (it may have contained two morphemes, meaning 'cow' and 'cheese,' in Old English). Toaster ends with the derivational suffix -er, creating an agent nonperson (unless, of course, we are talking about the person who works the toaster. Need context!).

In the classroom, this type of survey lends itself to critical thinking and peer discussion, followed by explicit teacher feedback. There is great value in this type of instructional conversation.

PS. At a more advanced level of morphological awareness (which includes knowledge), we come to realize that the English/Germanic suffix -er in dreamer and thinker corresponds with the Latin suffix -or in governor and senator

  • Anglin, J. M. (1993). Vocabulary development: A morphological analysis. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 58(10)[238], v-165. 
  • Berninger, V.W., Abbott, R.D., Nagy, W., & Carlisle, J. (2010).Growth in phonological, orthographic, and morphological awareness in grades 1 to 6. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 39, 141–163.


  1. "A third, and far less productive function of the suffix -er, is to create a sense of jocularity, as in soccer. There are very few words of this type."

    Perhaps I'm hung up on the "joke" part of the definition of "jocular," but I see "soccer" (from "as-SOC-iation football) as being both slang and a convenient shortening, but not really a joke.

    Jeff Dieffenbach

  2. Hi Jeff,

    The word soccer never struck me as particularly funny, either...but maybe in this case "you had to be there" (there being Oxford University, 19th Century). I believe the words formed through Rugby School slang (including footer, soccer, rugger, etc.) engendered a sense of esprit de corps, familiarity, jolly good humor, lightheartedness (but perhaps not really a joke, as you say).

    Here is what I recently learned from an Englishman at U-Texas:

    Near the end of 1863, Charles Wreford-Brown, who later became a notable official of the Football Association, was asked by some friends at Oxford whether he cared to join them for a game of "rugger" (rugby). He is said to have refused, preferring instead to go for a game of "soccer" - a play on the word "association". The name caught on.

    English public schoolboys love to nickname things, then as much as now. The tendency is to add "er" to the end of many words. Rugby [Union] Football became "rugby", and then "rugger". Association Football was better know as "assoccer" and naturally evolved into "soccer" which is much easier for a schoolboy to say...


    PS. The word jocularity means 'given to joke, playfulness, jolliness, characterized by facetious merriment' (etc.) so maybe we can go with the playful aspects of the term.

    Thanks, Jeff. Your question led to some interesting Google finds.


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