-ee - -er

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Confusion between these two suffixes has been known to arise. They look quite similar, after all. If you read too fast, you can mistake the one for the other.

  • -er is basically an 'agent suffix'. It labels the person who has done something - the doer of the action labelled in the first part of the word. A runner is somebody who runs, a teacher somebody who teaches, an employer employs people, and so on.
  • The suffix -ee is derived from (the masculine) and -ée (feminine), the French forms of the passive participle - what, in English grammar, AWE prefers to call the '-ed' participle. So it means the person to whom the action has been done. (See further -é - ée.)

Where there is a word with an -ee suffix, there is usually also a corresponding -er word:

  • The payer of a cheque is the person out of whose bank account the money comes. The payee, on the other hand, is the person into whose bank account the money goes.
  • An employer gives orders to - and pays - the employee.
  • Students should notice the difference between the examiner who sets the questions, and the examinee who has to answer them.

Native speakers seldom have difficulty in distinguishing an employer from an employee; non-native speakers can be confused even with such common examples.

But everyone can become confused if these suffixes are used too much, and the unnecessary use of -ee forms is increasing: see -ee for more on this.