I Before E, Except After C

Jeremy R. asks: Is it true that more words break the I before E rule than follow it? If so, how come this is taught at all?

caffeineIf you ever want to start a fight among a group of linguists and orthographers, bring up the grammar school rule: “I before E, except after C,” which has been around since at least the mid-19th century. You will likely begin the most sedate and erudite brawl you could ever hope to witness.

First, there are arguments over what exactly the rule should be. Some (like me) were taught what I’m calling the “neighbor [ei] rule”: “I before E, except after in C or words that say “ā” [ei], as in neighbor and weigh.”[1]

Others were given a variation, hereinafter called the “receive [i] rule“: “I before E except after C when the sound is “ee”” [i].

Although not perfect, it appears the latter version makes a better rule (if you’re going to have one), since it has fewer exceptions given that a smaller number of words are brought within its orbit in the first place.

Note that some words fit the first part of both rules:

ie: believe, collie, die and friend

cei: ceiling, deceive and receipt

After that, the list of compliant words (and exceptions) begins to deviate. Consider this list of words that do not violate the receive [i] rule, but do violate the neighbor [ei] rule:

ei: counterfeit, feisty, foreign, kaleidoscope, poltergeist, seismograph, surfeit and their

cie: ancient, deficient, glacier, proficient, society, science and sufficient

ie [ei]: gaiety

Of course, there are some exceptions that violate both rules as well, and these include:

ei: caffeine, leisure, protein, seize and weird[2]

cie: deficiencies and species

All of this leads to another argument: whether or not to have a rule at all.

Some, like Geoffrey K. Pullum (who ascribes to the receive [i] rule, although for him the phoneme is written [i:]), have characterized it as “a very helpful guide to one small point in the hideous mess that is English orthography.”

And others, like Mark Wainwright, have noted that because the “except after C” portion “covers the many derivatives of Latin capio [= "take”] . . . receive, deceit, inconceivable . . . [t[the]imple rule of thumb is necessary” and efficacious.

Of course, there are those who find the exceptions have swallowed the rule, rendering it useless, and these include the UK’s education department which, in 2009, advised teachers through a document titled, Support for Spelling that: “The I before e except after c rule is not worth teaching [s[since]t applies only to words . . . which . . . stand for a clear /ee/ sound and unless this is known, [m[many]ords . . . look like exceptions. There are so few words where the ei spelling for the /ee/ sound follows the letter c that it is easier to learn the specific words.”

This point of view finds support in the claim, made on the BBC show QI, that there are 923 words that are spelled cie, and only about 40 or so that are spelled cei, and for those who follow the neighbor [e[ei]ule, the extreme number of exceptions has rendered the rule “dumb and useless.”

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  • Markus

    It’s probably a bit easier for us non-native speakers. Learning the language you simply learn the vocabulary, word for word. No messing with exceptions to alleged rules or non-rules there.

  • Tony Luxton

    As mentioned, if you use the second line of the rhyme, “But only when the sound is ‘ee'”, there are virtually no exceptions at all, and the rule is a good one. That second line had to be tacked on after English had borrowed so many foreign words, which didn’t follow the original English rule.

    Incidentally, “weird” was originally pronounced as in “their”.

  • Shelley Wilson

    There are many reasons for unpredictable spelling and pronunciation. Many /ei/-/ie/ spellings are exceptions to the rule because there are other things that affected the modern spelling. The following are a few reasons and might be helpful to some:

    Non-native English words, therefore, not susceptible to English orthography – Einstein, fahrenheit, zeitgeist (following German spelling conventions); sheik (Arabic); sensei (Japanese); ancient (French)

    Suffixes and prefixes – re-invent, deify

    Dropping letters in some forms when adding a suffix – theism (belief of one god) vs theology (study of God)

    Pluralized forms – tendency/tendencies (result of English spelling conventions)

    Compound words – wherein, herein, therein

    Parallel spelling of its older form – neighbour from Old English neah “near” + gebur “dweller”;

    The Great Vowel Shift (1350 – 1600) was a widespread, systematic sound change where it “raised” the vowel to the next level. This explains some of the exceptions to pronunciation and the messed up spelling – sleight from the early 1300s was susceptible to the change (slate became slight), whereas sleigh first appears in the 1700s therefore wasn’t subject to that change.

    This /ei/-/ie/ discertation doesn’t help the new English speaker (or the bad speller) with spelling or pronunciation of the written word. In spoken English, you figure out the word by context, not by spelling it or seeing it written down.

    I’ve had fun giving my usual long answer. I got to whet my chops again talking language (which not many people want to talk about). I have a degree in linguistics and I miss the language geek stuff.