imposter vs. impostor

Maureen Dowd’s op-ed column in the NYT yesterday was headed

The Great Game Imposter

and later references to the Afghan man who passed himself off as a top Taliban commander used the spelling IMPOSTER. The day before, the headline in the news section went

Taliban Leader in Secret Talks Was an Impostor

and this front-page story used the spelling IMPOSTOR throughout.

The -ER spelling has appeared on Language Log, most notably in the title (and body) of a posting by Mark Liberman on 7/18/08:

Ranking fields by the difficulty of imposter detection (link)

(with comments addressing the spelling).

The facts are these: the -OR spelling is older, but the -ER spelling has been gaining on it, to the point where most current dictionaries give the -ER spelling as an alternative; both spellings are found in great numbers; but some people still consider the -ER spelling to be a mistake.

It was a bit of surprise to find the New York Times, which generally tries hard to enforce One Right Way, especially in mechanical matters, willing to let Dowd (or her editor) have the -ER spelling, and even to carry it over to the head.




5 Responses to “imposter vs. impostor”

  1. ShadowFox Says:

    If only this was an isolated case! All the built-in dictionaries in my PC (and, apparently the Mac as well) keep correcting my spelling of “advisor” to “adviser”. Since I usually prefer the former, it’s endless suffering. But I just ran a search on my collection of articles from various sources that I forwarded last year–27 have “advisor” and 35 have “adviser”. The selection is biased as to the sources, but not to the style.

    The OED has both, although the head word is “Adviser”. But there is also this interesting example:

    1899 Advisor Feb. 8 Such a paper as The Advisor will be a great help to any advertisor.

    While I have no problem with “Advisor”, obviously, I am struck by “advertisor”–not something I would use or expect to see used. There seems to be a lot of room for variability on this.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Oh dear, advisor vs. adviser. I’ve advised students at three different universities in my career, and each of them has an abolutely rigid rule about which spelling must appear on forms, honors theses, qualifying papers, and dissertations — the great god Consistency must be served — but they don’t all have the same rule. Fortunately, all this material is now available in electronic templates, so I no longer have to remember what my current university requires.

      Left to my own devices, as in letters of recommendation, I use ADVISER. But that’s a matter of personal taste, something I wouldn’t impose on anyone else.

  2. season Says:

    unfortunately newspapers are laying off their copy editors like crazy, so inconsistencies and other problems are getting through even at the most prestigious ones.

  3. amund Says:

    if you use the verb – advise – as a root, then someone who advises would be an adviser. this is not the same as impostor – a noun.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Unfortunately, this simple reasoning isn’t actually of any help. The -or nouns get their spelling from Latin, the -er nouns from native English, and the base verb is usually available in English in either case. So it’s editor but reader, and the difference has to do with history, not reasoning from first principles. For the agent-noun impostor, it just happens that there’s no native English base verb around, so only the -or spelling is available as the standard spelling, but a huge number of agent-nouns could have gone either way.

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