I before E except after C
"I before E, except after C" is a mnemonic rule of thumb for English spelling. If one is unsure whether a word is spelled with the sequence ei or ie, the rhyme suggests that the correct order is ie unless the preceding letter is c, in which case it is ei. For example:
- ie in believe, fierce, collie, die, friend
- ei after c in deceive, ceiling, receipt, ceilidh
The rule is very well known; Edward Carney calls it "this supreme, and for many people solitary, spelling rule". However, the short form quoted above has many common exceptions; for example:
- ie after c: species, science, society, sufficient
- ei not preceded by c: seize, weird, vein, their, foreign, feisty, heist
Many more exceptions are listed below.
The proportion of exceptions can be reduced by restricting application of the rule based on the sound represented by the spelling. Two common restrictions are:
- excluding cases where the spelling represents the "long a"[n 1] sound (the lexical sets of FACE // and perhaps SQUARE //). This is commonly expressed by continuing the rhyme "or when sounding like A, as in neighbor or weigh"
- including only cases where the spelling represents the "long e"[n 1] sound (the lexical sets of FLEECE // and perhaps NEAR // and happY //).
- 1 History
- 2 Modern views
- 3 Exceptions
- 4 Allusions
- 5 Footnote
- 6 References
History of the spellings
The Middle English language evolved from Old English after the Norman conquest, adding many loanwords from Norman French, whose sounds and spellings changed and were changed by the older English customs. In French loanwords, the digraph <ie> generally represented the sound [eː], while <ei> represented [ɛː]. However, Early Modern English spelling was not fixed; many words were spelled with <ie> and <ei> interchangeably, in printed works of the seventeenth century and private correspondence of educated people into the nineteenth century. In the Great Vowel Shift, sounds [eː] and [ɛː] were raised to [iː] and [eː] respectively, with the latter subsequently becoming the diphthong [eɪ]. Exceptionally, words in -ceive and their derivatives evolved from [eː] to [iː] rather than [eɪ].
History of the mnemonic
The mnemonic (in its short form) is found as early as 1866, as a footnote in Manual of English Spelling, edited by schools inspector James Stuart Laurie from the work of a Tavistock schoolmaster named Marshall. Michael Quinion surmises the rhyme was already established before this date. An 1834 manual states a similar rule in prose; others in 1855 and 1862 use different rhymes. Many textbooks from the 1870s on use the same rhyme as Laurie's book.
The restriction to the "long e" sound is explicitly made in the 1855 and 1862 books, and applied to the "I before E except after C" rhyme in an 1871 manual. Mark Wainwright's FAQ posting on the alt.usage.English newsgroup characterises this restricted version as British. The restriction may be implicit, or may be explicitly included as an extra line such as "when the sound is e" placed before or after the main part of the rhyme.
- The following rhymes contain the substance of the last three rules : —
- i before e,
- Except after c,
- Or when sounded as "a,"
- As in neighbour and weigh.
A Dictionary of Modern English Usage discusses "i before e except after c". Henry Watson Fowler's original 1926 edition called the rule "very useful", restricting it to words with the "long e" sound, stating further that "words in which that sound is not invariable, as either, neither, inveigle, do not come under it", and calling seize "an important exception". The entry was retained in Ernest Gowers's 1965 revision. Robert Burchfield rewrote it for the 1996 edition, stating 'the rule can helpfully be extended "except when the word is pronounced with /eɪ/"', and giving a longer list of exceptions, including words excluded from Fowler's interpretation. Robert Allen's 2008 pocket edition states, "The traditional spelling rule ' i before e except after c ' should be extended to include the statement 'when the combination is pronounced -ee- '".
In 1932 Leonard B. Wheat examined the rules and word lists found in various American elementary school spelling books. He calculated that, of the 3,876 words listed, 128 had ei or ie in the spelling; of these, 83 conformed to I-before-E, 6 to except-after-C, and 12 to sounded-like-A. He found 14 words with i-e in separate syllables, and 2 with e-i in separate syllables. This left 11 "irregular" words: 3 with cie (ancient, conscience, efficiency) and 8 with ei (either, foreign, foreigner, height, leisure, neither, seize, their). Wheat concluded, "If it were not for the fact that the jingle of the rule makes it easy to remember (although not necessarily easy to apply), the writer would recommend that the rule be reduced to 'I usually comes before e,' or that it be discarded entirely".
Sandra Wilde in 1990 claimed the sounded-like-E version of the rule was one of only two sound–letter correspondence rules worth teaching in elementary schools. The rule was covered by five of nine software programs for spelling education studied by Barbara Mullock in 2012.
Edward Carney's 1994 Survey of English Spelling describes the ["long-e" version of the] rule as "peculiar":
- Its practical use is ... simply deciding between two correspondences for /iː/ that are a visual metathesis of each other. It is not a general graphotactic rule applicable to other phonemes. So, although seize and heinous (if you pronounce it with /iː/ rather than /eɪ/) are exceptions, heifer, leisure with /e/≡<ei> or rein, vein with /eɪ/≡<ei> are not exceptions; <ie> is not a usual spelling of /e/ or /eɪ/.
As to the usefulness of the rule, he says:
- Such rules are warnings against common pitfalls for the unwary. Nevertheless, selection among competing correspondences has never been, and could never be, covered by such aids to memory.
The converse of the "except after c" part is Carney's spelling-to-sound rule E.16: in the sequence <cei>, the <ei> is pronounced /iː/. In Carney's test wordlist, all eight words with <cei> conform to this rule, which he thus describes as being a "marginal" rule with an "efficiency" of 100%. Rarer loanwords not in the wordlist may not conform; e.g. the Gaelic word ceilidh is pronounced /keɪliː/.
Mark Wainwright's FAQ posting interprets the rule as applying only to the FLEECE vowel, not the NEAR vowel; he regards it as useful if "a little common sense" is used for the exceptions. The FAQ includes a 1996 response to Wainwright by an American, listing variations on the rule and their exceptions, contending that even the restricted version has too many exceptions, and concluding "Instead of trying to defend the 'rule' or 'guideline', "'i' before 'e' except after 'c'", why don't we all just agree that it is dumb and useless, and be content just to laugh at it?"
Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster has said the neighbor-and-weigh version is "chocked with tons of exceptions", listing several types. On Language Log in 2006, Mark Liberman suggested that the alternative "i before e, no matter what" was more reliable than the basic rule. On the same blog in 2009, Geoff Pullum wrote, 'The rule is always taught, by anyone who knows what they are doing, as "i before e except after c when the sound is 'ee'."'
- Children investigate the rule i before e except after c. Does this always apply? What sound does ie make in these words?
In the Appendix, after a list of nine "useful spelling guidelines", there is a note:
- The i before e except after c rule is not worth teaching. It applies only to words in which the ie or ei stands for a clear /ee/ sound and unless this is known, words such as sufficient, veil and their 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: receive, conceive, deceive (+ the related words receipt, conceit, deceit), perceive and ceiling.
The Oxford Dictionaries website of Oxford University Press states "The rule only applies when the sound represented is ‘ee’, though. It doesn’t apply to words like science or efficient, in which the –ie- combination does follow the letter c but isn’t pronounced ‘ee’."
David Crystal discusses the rule in his 2012 history of English spelling. He first restricts it to the // vowel, then accounts for several classes of exception. He states that, while the exceptions are fewer and rarer than the words that follow the rule, there are too many to learn by heart; the factors are "too great to reduce to a simple rule", but "a basic knowledge of grammar and word-history" can handle them.
The following sections list exceptions to the basic form; many are not exceptions to the augmented forms.
Some large groups of words have cie in the spelling. Few common words have the cei spelling handled by the rule: verbs ending -ceive and their derivatives (perceive, deceit, transceiver, receipts, etc.), and ceiling. The BBC trivia show QI claimed there were 923 words spelled cie, 21 times the number of words which conform to the rule's stated exception by being written with cei. These figures were generated by a QI fan from a Scrabble wordlist.
With the "long e" vowel
The vowel represented by ie in words spelled cie is rarely the "long e" vowel of FLEECE (/iː/), so few words are exceptions to the version of the rule restricted to that sound. Among them are specie, species.
If the vowel of NEAR (/ɪər/) is considered as "long e", then words ending -cier may also be exceptions. Possible examples include: fancier, if pronounced with two rather than three syllables; or financier, if stressed on the final syllable or pronounced with a happy-tensing accent.
With other sounds
These are exceptions to the basic and "long a" versions of the rhyme, but not to the "long e" version.
- Adding suffix -er to root in -cy, giving a two-syllable ending -cier; For example, fancier (adjective "more fancy", or noun "one who fancies")
- Words of Latin origin with a root ending in c(i) followed by a suffix or inflexion starting in (i)e; such as
- Others: ancient, concierge, glacier
ei not preceded by c
Many words have ei not preceded by c. In the sections which follow, most derived forms are omitted; for example, as well as seize, there exist disseize and seizure. Words are grouped by the phonemes (sounds) corresponding to ei or ie in the spelling; each phoneme is represented phonetically as at Wikipedia:IPA for English and, where applicable, by the keyword in John C. Wells' lexical sets.
An asterisk* after a word indicates the pronunciation implied is one of several found. Some have an /iː/ variant more common in America than Britain (e.g. sheikh, leisure, either have /eɪ/, /ɛ/, /aɪ/ respectively).
With the "long e" vowel
Words where ei, not preceded by c, represents the vowel of FLEECE (/iː/), are the only exceptions to the strictest British interpretation of the "long e" version of the rhyme. Less strict interpretations admit as exceptions those words where eir, not preceded by c, represents the vowel of NEAR (/ɪər/).
Some categories of exception:
- Many proper names, often because they are adopted from other languages. Fowler says the rule "is useless with proper names"; Carney says "As one might expect of any rule, there are likely to be even more exceptions in names, many of which are Scottish":
- Chemical names ending in -ein or -eine (caffeine, casein, codeine, phthalein, protein, etc.). Here -ein(e) was originally pronounced as two syllables /iː.ɪn/
- Scottish English words (deil, deid, weill, etc.) Mark Wainwright writes "There are many exceptions in Scots, so speakers with a large Scots vocabulary may as well give up on this rule."
- /iː/ FLEECE
- either*, heinous*, inveigle*, keister, leisure*, monteith, neither*, obeisance*, seize, seizin, sheikh*, teiid
- /ɪər/ NEAR
- madeira, weir, weird. (This sound may also be spelled ier, as in pierce.)
With the "long a" vowel
There are many words where ei, not preceded by c, represents the vowel of FACE (/eɪ/). There are a few where eir, not preceded by c, represents the vowel of SQUARE (/ɛər/). These groups of words are exceptions only to the basic form of the rhyme; they are excluded from both of the common restricted forms.
- /eɪ/ FACE
- With eigh spelling: eight, freight, heigh-ho*, inveigh, neigh, neighbo(u)r, sleigh, weigh
- Others: abseil, beige, capoeira, cleidoic, deign, dreidel, feign, feint, geisha, glei, greige, greisen, heinous*, inveigle*, nonpareil*, obeisance*, peignoir*, reign, rein, seiche, seidel, seine, sheikh*, skein, surveillance, veil, vein. (While Carney says this sound is never spelled ie, the last vowel in lingerie* is often the FACE vowel.).
- /ɛər/ SQUARE
- heir, their. (This sound is never spelled ier)
With other sounds
These are exceptions to the basic and "long a" versions of the rhyme, but not to the "long e" version.
- /aɪ/ PRICE
- eider, either*, einsteinium, feisty, gneiss, heigh-ho*, height, heist, kaleidoscope, leitmotiv, neither*, Rottweiler, seismic, sleight, stein, zeitgeist. (This sound may also be spelled ie, but only at the end of a morpheme as in die, pies, cried.)
- /ɨ/ (see weak-vowel merger)
- counterfeit, foreign, forfeit, reveille*, sovereign, surfeit
- /ɛ/ DRESS
- heifer, leisure*, nonpareil*, peignoir*. (This sound is spelled ie in the word friend.)
- /æ/ TRAP
- /ɜ/ NURSE
- e and i in separate segments (and often separate syllables or morphemes)
- Prefixes de- or re- before words starting with i (deindustrialize, reignite, etc.)
- Inflection -ing of those verbs with roots ending in -e which do not drop the e (being, seeing, swingeing, etc.)
- Others: albeit, atheism, deify, deity, herein, nuclei, onomatopoeia
The rhyme is mentioned in several films and TV episodes about spelling bees, including A Boy Named Charlie Brown, The Simpsons episode "I'm Spelling as Fast as I Can", and an episode of Arthur; and also in the musical The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, when Huck Finn is being taught how to read. The rhyme was used as a climactic plot device in the 1990 TaleSpin episode "Vowel Play" when Kit corrects Baloo's spelling by reciting the second half ("or when sounding like A, as in neighbour or weigh") of the mnemonic.
"I Before E Except After C" is a song on Yazoo's 1982 album Upstairs at Eric's. The Jackson 5's 1970 hit "ABC" has the lyric "I before E except after C". "I before E except after C" was a 1963 episode of the TV series East Side/West Side.
I Before E is the name of both a short-story collection by Sam Kieth and a music album by Carissa's Wierd, in each case alluding to the unusual spelling of the creator's name. Until the 1930s, Pierce City, Missouri was named "Peirce City", after Andrew Peirce. A 1982 attempt to revert to the original spelling was rejected by the United States Census Bureau.
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- Carney 1994, §2.8.2 pp.67–68
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- Tallant, Anne (1834). The practice book; containing lessons in dictating, with questions, intended to remove difficulties in English instruction, and to communicate interesting historical and natural facts (2nd ed.). London: J. Hatchard & Son. p. 68, fn. Retrieved 27 February 2011.
As a little confusion is experienced by scholars, when spelling dissyllable verbs ending in ie, it is well to remember that when the diphthong is preceded by c, it is invariably ei,—ex: perceive, deceive, conceive, &c, and when preceded by any other consonant, ie, ex:—believe, reprieve, retrieve, &c.
- Michôd, John (1855). "Vowels: Rule 5". Orthographic aids; or, Mnemonics for spelling and exercises in derivation. London: Longman. p. 9. Retrieved 25 February 2011.
The Diphthong ei when it sounds like long e,
Most frequently follows the consonant c;
Reverse it, and then if it still sound the same,
It follows a consonant not c by name,
Except in such words as—counterfeit, seizure,
Plebeian and Proper Names such as Madeira.
- Mongan, James Roscoe (1862). The practical spelling book (2nd ed.). London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co. pp. 13, fn. Retrieved 27 February 2011.
Unless preceded by a c, / The i is placed before the e.
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- Wikiquote:Brian Regan