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i Before e, Except After c? That's Weird.

May 30, 2018

There are certain things people believe about the English language that simply aren’t true. To be fair, it’s a really complicated language. Many people joke that learning English isn’t about memorizing the rules, it’s about knowing the exceptions to those rules. One such rule: i before e, except after c.

 

 

As kids, we clung to this idea until we began encountering words like feisty, keister, and species. The British TV show QI estimates that there are 21x the amount of words that break this rule as there are ones that follow it.

 

The rule first appeared in a Manual of English Spelling in 1866. As far as I can tell, (I haven’t checked with any grade schoolers lately) the rule is still taught, though most people consider it more a “guideline” than anything else.

 

There are two ways in which this rule can be broken—have an “ei” with no C in front, such as the word leisure, or have a “cie,” such as in the word science. Even proper names like Keith break this rule.

 

Merriam-Webster once attempted to revise this rule to account for the exceptions. It went like this:

 

I before e, except after c
Or when sounded as 'a' as in 'neighbor' and 'weigh'
Unless the 'c' is part of a 'sh' sound as in 'glacier'
Or it appears in comparatives and superlatives like 'fancier'
And also except when the vowels are sounded as 'e' as in 'seize' 
Or 'i' as in 'height' 
Or also in '-ing' inflections ending in '-e' as in 'cueing'
Or in compound words as in 'albeit' 
Or occasionally in technical words with strong etymological links to their parent languages as in 'cuneiform'
Or in other numerous and random exceptions such as 'science', 'forfeit', and 'weird'.

 

Once we ignore the non-rhyme of the new rule, we realize that… it’s still super confusing! Personally, I say we dump this idea altogether and just learn how to spell. After all, a concierge riding eight reindeer may find them too feisty for him to rein in.

 

 

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