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I before E? Don’t ask me!

John Murray

You can probably remember that teacher in school who used to hand back your work littered with red biro circles and the words “I before E, except after C” scrawled on it. Some people  find it a useful mnemonic to remember the difference between how to spell words like ‘friend’ and ‘believe’, and the alternative pattern of ‘receive’ and ‘perceive’, but can it really be taken any further than that?

The ‘rule’ has always rankled with me a bit, as it’s really too inconsistent to preach to young kids who believe everything their teachers tell them. As of 2009, the Government agrees with me; a document of that year called ‘Support for Spelling’ actually recommends that the mantra should not be recited in classrooms.

Personally, I have three main issues with it:

1. Plenty of Cs are followed by IE

I had long suspected that there were at least as many examples of CIE appearing in words as there were CEI, but that point was really driven home during a 2010 episode of the BBC myth-busting panel programme QI.

A fan of the comedy show had commented on its forum that the Scrabble dictionary (which includes plurals and –ier, -iest and -ing inflections of words) actually contains more than five times as many ‘cie’ words as ‘cei (923 to 167). This factoid appeared on the programme and had the guests in their usual befuddled state.

You could argue that the rule applies only to long ‘e’ sounds, or that it doesn’t include inflections, or that it only applies to non-foreign words. Once you introduce all these variables (and there are still exceptions), isn’t the reliability and swiftness of the mnemonic somewhat lost, though?

2. Plenty of EIs without a C in sight

Consider the following sentence:

“Eat protein leisurely to gain height and weight”

I can see four EIs there, and not a single C. What’s more, the EI is pronounced differently in each instance, so it’s not even as if there is any kind of phonetic rule to follow here.

3. Why EI or IE at all?

Almost all EI or IE words could feasibly be spelt differently. If you had never before seen the word ‘receive’, for example, you might guess that it’s spelt ‘reseeve’ or ‘recive’. Even if the rule worked perfectly, you still have to know that there’s an IE or EI in the word, and there is no real pattern as to how to know this.

So, to conclude… I before E? Use a dictionary!

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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