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No escaping it

Usually the Guardian’s stylebook presents a sensible, informed set of guidelines. It was, therefore, a little discouraging to see this tweet from @guardianstyle:

-ee: something is done to you; -er: you do something; employee or employer but attender, escaper not attendee, escapee

We had an editor at The Sun who held to the same belief, that because –ee indicated the acted upon rather than the actor, escaper was the proper word. And so escapers appeared in our pages until that editor moved on to other things and the dictum was silently abandoned.

Bryan Garner observes that escaper would logically be the correct word, “[but] the life of our language has not followed logic.” He rates escapee as fully acceptable.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that escaper, the older word, dating from the early seventeenth century, has been “all but eclipsed by escapee.” (The “scanty evidence” for escaper, it says, is all from British sources.) Escapee dates from the nineteenth century, appearing in Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, and is now the standard word.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:42 AM | | Comments (23)


The proper use of "-ee" is actually a very subtle point of English grammar. For the most part, in English we identify the actor of a transitive verb with the subject of an intransitive verb: when we say "I walked to the store and I met him there", we use the nominative pronoun "I" for the subjects of both "walked" and "met", and the objective pronoun "him" for the object of "met".

In some languages, however, the subject of an intransitive verb is identified with the *object* of a transitive verb. In these languages, the basic noun cases are not nominative and objective, but ergative (which is used for agents of transitive verbs only) and absolutive (used in the other two places). In Basque, for example, the subject of "walked" would be marked absolutive and so would the object of "met", whereas the subject of "met" (the one who acts) would be marked ergative.

Now what has this to do with "-ee"? Simple: "-ee" is attached to a verb to make a noun describing the player of the *absolutive, not the objective,* role of that verb. "Interviewer" is transitive, so those who are subjects of this verb (ergative) are "interviewers", and those who are objects (absolutive) are "interviewees". "Escape" is intransitive, so those who are subjects of this verb are "escapees" (absolutive).

It's true that this use of "-ee" is less productive in English than the paired use of "-er" and "-ee" to make nouns from transitive verbs. But it's there, and that's why we say "escapee" and "absentee" (from the rather old-fashioned verb "to absent").

Many (!) years ago, Microsoft Office was insistent on the use of "attender" in place of "attendee", but this was given up in more recent versions. Once again it shows that logic goes only so far when we're trying to resolve language issues.

It's helpful to look at this issue from the point of view of an ergative grammar. The '-er' suffix is applied to those who do something to some other entity. The '-ee' suffix is applied to those to whom something is done or those who do something to themselves.

"I am not the dreamer. I am the dreamee."
The Fonze

Bryan Garner's legal roots are showing.

"The life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience." Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

@John Cowan, @David Craig: That's very interesting, but why would English adopt this ergative/absolutive distinction in one little corner of the language, when it's not something that your average English speaker is aware of or (if I am any example) can understand without a lot of head-scratching?

Gowers and Fraser discussed this a long tine ago in the Complete Plain words. But I'm still not clear why escaper has not become the word for one who escapes. Perhaps it's pronounceability--escapee has the stressed ee that makes it clear that it is that it is not just an inflected form of escape.

That might explain bargee, a longstanding word for a barge operator. Barger is not clearly heard as something different from barge, especially in non-rhotic dialects of English

Is it anything to do with the fact that the er-ee dichotomy needs two to tango?

An interviewee requires an interviewer, whereas there's no other person in escaper, which therefore becomes analogous to lecturer, porter, waiter, etc.

Oh lord, so the evidence for escaper is British? That news will set the Guardian back a bit, I imagine.

No, I'm sorry, you've lost me here. So the Guardian, considering what its style should be, has chosen between two possibilities. It has picked a perfectly acceptable common variant. What's the problem?

There does seem to me to be a growing tendency in this blog and its comments for a sort of anti-peeve peevery to develop; the sort of peevish equivalent of antimatter. Because nutcases have peeved against escapee, escaper must be the output of a nutcase. And thus my own English, which includes "escaper", and "she" for ships, and "an historic", and "whom", and the pronoun "one", is suddenly downgraded to gibberish or pretentious Queensenglishness.

Consider: haven't you inadvertently joined the enemy?

A fair question, so let's look at the record.

You may have noticed that I still use whom and do not deplore its use. it was my advice to the perplexed that it's safer to use who in all instances if you can't figure it out, which is the direction in which the language is heading anyhow.

And I'm the one who mounted a defense of an historic and was shouted down. (The Guardian, incidentally, is pretty firm about a historic. They are letting the side down.)

The ship business was a post about a failure in the newsroom to observe a long-standing and reasonable point of house style. (By a writer with a history of writing snotty little notes to the copy desk about lapses in house style.)

And the escaper post pointed out that (a) the objection to escapee is groundless and (b) escaper is just odd in American English.

I don't think that I have slipped into the dark side, but I appreciate getting the caution.

Oh dear, your reply is so annoyingly generous that I can only just about manage to point out that what you say about "escapee" and the Grauniad is not absolutely one hundred per cent what you said in your post. But 'eckerslike, as my Yorkshire compatriots remark. Thank you.

Is it anything to do with the fact that the er-ee dichotomy needs two to tango?

An interviewee requires an interviewer, whereas there's no other person in escaper, which therefore becomes analogous to lecturer, porter, waiter, etc.

David L: Most of the time we simply do not know *why* a language adopts a certain convention or behaves in a certain way. The most we can do is to point out that something that seems irregular has an underlying regularity of a known type.

There is no specific explanation, for example, why in English we can say "The sun shone brightly yesterday" but not "Harold shone his shoes yesterday" (that is, intransitive "shine" is irregular, transitive "shine" is regular). The most we can say is that irregular verbs and nouns are often irregular in more than one way. A house can be at the top or the foot of a mountain, but while two houses can be at the tops of two mountains, they cannot be at the feet: "feet of the mountains" is an impossible expression, and we must speak of their bases or roots or what not.

Adrian Griffin: I have no authority for this, but I suspect the "-ee" in "bargee" is just an unusual spelling of "-(e)y". It is not until 1888 that "barge" is recorded as a verb meaning "push roughly". Before that it only means "carry by barge", "journey by barge", or "swear like a bargee". As far as the OED knows, it has never meant "pole a barge".

David L: Many linguists (Steven Pinker comes to mind) have looked into why irregular verbs go regular in some uses. Baseball--flied out, not flew out etc. I don't think it's transitive vs. intransitive--it's more related to extending the original meaning, so weakening the tie to the original irregular form. For example, most people say highlighted, rather that highlit.

As for bargee originally being bargey, that makes sense. In English English, a colloquial word for someone associated with barges would quite naturally be bargey.

If I might be allowed a small segue, I will note that I was unhappy to observe during a recent trip to Scotland that "gifted" is well ensconced in the written language there. And it was not just in ad copy and the like. Even eminent museums wrote that such and such a painting or objet was "gifted" by so-and-so. Why not donated or given?

Did they give you dry bedclothes this time, Dahlink?

Why, yes, Picky--they most certainly did! And we were very well fed as well--not a single bad meal.

Here, at Enormous Corp., we 'gift' that which was formerly fee waived or gratis. Since this trend seems to have begun well up the food chain from me, I have not questioned the reasoning. (Not aloud, at least!)

To my ear, "We'll waive that fee." makes the KYA aspect a lot clearer.

Yes, it's all about the impact on the ear, isn't it, Eve? In my first full-time job my boss insisted that I write "We will gladly lend you a microfilm ..." (not "loan you ..") and to this day I can't bear to hear the other construction.

There's no good reason to call someone an "attendee" of an event where he or she was presumably (and more to the point) a guest, patron, fan or participant. It's a word that spilled out of the event planning profession, where it may be reasonably cromulent, into common English, where it isn't.

The event planning profession eh?

Adrian: Pinker specifically contradicts the theory that mere shift in meaning affects the regularity of verbs. "Broadcast" has undergone a nearly complete shift of meaning from "sow seeds by scattering" to "transmit by radio or television", but it remains irregular (though "broadcasted" is not unknown). "Fly out" is fully regular, however, because it is not derived directly from the verb "fly" but from the noun "fly".

Dahlink: "Gift" has been a verb of decent mien (in Mencken's phrase) in Scots and Scottish English for more than four hundred years, as both the OED and the DSL (freely available at tell us, so it's hardly surprising that museums in Scotland employ it.

Eve: To my ear, "We'll waive that fee" sounds like waving rather than waiving.

Thanks for the fuller explanation, John Cowan. I will try to contain my dislike of that particular verb in the future out of respect for the Scots.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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