I Before E Except After C

Why is this (generally) the way Engligh words are spelled?

Because English has been derived from several different root languages, each of which came to us with their own vestigial orthography. In German, /ie/ is proinced “ee” and /ei/ is pronounced as a “long I”. As in “believe” a word of Germanic origin.

But words of Latin/French origin. like “receive” are under no such contraint.

There are many exceptions, like “seize”.

You left off the rest of the rule, which goes most of the way towards explaining it: “…or when sounded as ‘A’, as in ‘neighbor’ or ‘weigh’”. The digraph “ei” is not prohibited in English; it just (usually) has a different pronunciation.

Annoyingly, QI made the same mistake. They could have talked about genuine exceptions to the rule (of which there are plenty, such as “weird” and “Fahrenheit”), but instead wasted their time on words which follow the rule, like “eight”.

I got a word wrong in a spelling bee in third grade when I tried to apply this rule. I was given the word “science”, which has an i before the e, even though it’s after C and it’s not sounded like “a”. I’ve been angry at this rule ever since.

What is QI? Quantum Interpolation?

Presumably a reference to the British TV panel show:



I was taught (back in the 50s) i before e except when it isn’t.

Anyway, Chronos, I think you’re just backing up the point that QI tried (and possibly failed, because ceiling) to get across: When you have a rule that includes “except when X, and except when Y, and except for about as many random exceptions as there are instances of the rule”, then that’s not a very useful rule anymore.

Thanks. That was … quite interesting. I wonder why we (the Americans) haven’t stolen that idea from the Brits.

The reason is that “ie” is not a diphthong in science. “sci” is the first syllable and “ence” is the second syllable.

So now the rule needs to be amended “and except when it’s not a diphthong”.

I propose a simpler rule: “I before E in the word ‘friend’, and other than that, your guess is as good as mine”. This new rule will help most students just as much as the old rule does, but will lead them astray much less often.

The short version of the rule is intended to apply only to words pronounced with the long /ee/ sound. Most of the English words in which the /ee/ sound is spelled either /ie/ or /ei/ use the /ie/ Germanic option and most of the exceptions follow C, having laboriously worked their way down from Latin “capere”, to take. Receive, receipt, deceive, conceive, generally containing variations on the Latin root.

If your word does not have a long /ee/ sound (friend, science, neighbor, freight, fiery, heist. their) the rule is not applicable and is not intended to offer guidance…

Yeah, maybe that’s why the rule does seem useful even though exceptions abound.
I mean, lots of times it’s reminded me how to spell a word, and I can’t think of a time it led me astray; perhaps it was only the /ee/ words that used to confuse me.

Except when it’s “weird.” That said, the guideline has actually been useful to me, as well. I’m not sure if I just naturally internalized all the exceptions, or naturally noticed that it’s for “ee” sounds, but it helps me out.

Right. But I was in third grade and was just trying to follow a rule we’d been taught. I guess “…except when it’s not a dipthong” didn’t rhyme, so they didn’t include it in the rule.

Ah, so it follows the rule … I before E, except after C and except if it sounds like “a” and except if its weird.

Plus, depending on how you pronounce 'em, “either” and “neither”.

The rule as I learnt it is “I before e except after c when the sound is ee”. That is probably about as accurate as you will get.

I can’t even think of any words where ‘ie’ is pronounced ‘ee’, off the top of my head.