Aubrey Waddy recently wrote:
“Your use of the word attendee in today’s discussion of pied prompts me to ask whether you’ll do a piece on this somewhat ugly word, and discuss its tail.”
“Surely the way the suffix is employed in attendee is wrong, and strictly speaking: the form should be attender. The sad thing about this is that people [speakers of English] no longer know their -ers from their -ees, and these days -ee is appended incorrectly to all sorts of words.”
In fact, the rule that is ignored it this: -er is added to transitive verbs to mark the subject of the action; -ee is added to transitive verbs to indicate the object of the verb’s action (employer – employee). -Ee is added to intransitive verbs to indicate the subject of the intransitive verb. Whether this was a historical rule, which no longer holds, or a confusion of the syntactic and semantic levels, I don’t know. But there are traces of this rule in the derivation of “personal” nouns.
Escapee, standee, enlistee are some of the verbs that follow this rule: you can’t escape anything (though things can escape you); someone escapes from prison. The sense of enlistee is “someone who enlists in the army”, not enlists the army.
Attendee can be explained as one of these historically. Originally, it could be used intransitively with the preposition to: attend to, which was reduced to tend to. We still use this intransitive sense when we say, “attend to business”.
There was always confusion as to whether attend was a transitive or intransitive verb. Intransitivity won out in the grab for a personal noun ending; transitivity seems to be winning in the struggle to control the verb itself.