The pattern for forming agent nouns usually seems to be dropping the ending from the infinitive and adding "eur" or "euse," such as chanteur, accusateur, procureur. However, some verbs instead take "-ant", such as étudiant and dirigeant.

Is there any rule for this, or etymological explanation? Is it arbitrary?

  • As far as I know there is no rule for this. I think it has to do with the fact that étudiant and dirigeant are "classes" of people, who are defined by the fact that they are study_ing_ or direct_ing_ at the moment. – Azaghal Jun 13 '18 at 7:02

The TLFi has a full paragraph (Rem. gen. 3) explaining the generic difference between adjectives and substantives in -ant vs the ones in -eur.

The main idea is that -eur generally implies a function (intrinsic role) while -ant is more a property (activity).

One example would be the opposition between c'est un gagneur (he is a winner) and c'est un gagnant (he is one of the winners).

So the étudiants and dirigeants happen to study or manage more likely because they decided or were told or elected to do so while a chanteur an accusateur or a procureur have completed studies or trainings in order to sing or prosecute as their main occupation.

As dimitris suggested, a doctorant is studying (transient activity) while a docteur is a permanent title and chercheurs have decided to make research their main long term activity.

Note that the distinction is not always manifest, e.g.:

  • Attaquant (striker) vs défenseur (defender)

  • Voyant(e) (psychic) vs voyeur

  • I think the main pattern applies with étudiant doctorant, docteur (en mécanique for instance) et chercheur post-doctoral, non ? – Dimitris Jun 13 '18 at 8:28
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    Pour réponses comme celle-ci, FSE est vraiment indispensable ☺. Merci pour avoir rajouter mon commentaire. – Dimitris Jun 13 '18 at 8:39
  • La différence entre gagneuse et gagnante est encore plus frappante ;-) – Laurent S. Jun 14 '18 at 11:36
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    @LaurentS. La différence est frappeuse ;-) – jlliagre Jun 14 '18 at 11:48

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