Mots Justes learned something new during this Monday Morning Grammar series on nouns: attendee isn’t technically the correct form of a noun to describe a person who attends an event. I used attendee all the time when I worked as a trade journalist covering industry conventions to refer to those in attendance. What I should have been using was attender (a word, by the way, that Microsoft Word has warned me is incorrect with a red squiggly line but is indeed listed at Merriam-Webster Online).
To find out why, first we need to understand the difference between agent and recipient nouns:
An agent noun refers to a person who perform an action. Usually you form an agent noun by adding the suffixes -er or -or to the action the person is performing. For example, a writer writes, and an editor edits.
A recipient noun refers to a person who receives a thing or action or for whom something is done. Usually you form an agent noun by adding the suffix -ee. For example, a mentee is someone who is mentored, and a tutee is someone who is tutored.
Now, back to attendee. Based on what we have learned today, we now know that nouns ending in -ee are recipient nouns, so grammatically attendee doesn’t refer to someone who attends something but to someone whom is attended.
Although attendee is so commonly used as an agent noun and attender sounds awkward, it’s unlikely a reader will be confused by the two. However, Chicago recommends avoiding using -ee words in agent-noun contexts because they can be ambiguous.
Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.