I Before E, Except…

i before e, except after c.

Most native English speakers are familiar with this rule of thumb. It’s quite handy, isn’t it? With words that have i and e together in the middle of them, it can be hard to remember what order they should be in. How marvellous then, to have a rule that’s not only easy to remember, but rhymes too! But if you’ve learned English, you’ve probably grown to mistrust anyone who claims that a rule is 100% airtight…

At first glance, the rule seems pretty solid. There are plenty of words where i comes before e, and they’re not preceded by c:

believe, belieber, die, achieve, relief, fierce, friend

and many cases wherein c is followed by ei:

receive, deceit, receipt, ceiling, perceive, transceiver

That all looks pretty good, except… hang on… what’s this!?

weight, reign, weird,  their

Why, if they’re not words that feature e before i, and not preceded by c! Well of course there’ll be a few exceptions…

heir, weir, abseil…

ok, but…

seize, vein, rein, foreign, heist, feisty…

Ok, ok, stop, I get it! What about words where c is followed by ie? Surely there can’t be any…

species, science, sufficient, prescient, deficient, efficient, society…

Well, now I feel stupid. So there are lots of exemptions. What’s the point of the rule then? Well, it’s not completely useless. There are still a lot of words out there that conform to it. Specifically, when cei are grouped together, they usually form a long e sound //. Though there are still some exceptions to that, it generally holds true. And ei without c before usually makes a long a sound /eɪ/. Some people have therefore suggested extending the rule to include …except when sounding like a, as in neighbour and weigh. It loses a lot of its catchiness though, and when you have to get so specific about the exceptions to your rule, then maybe it’s not really a rule, is it? When it’s argued that there may be about 20 times more words containing cie than containing cei (I can’t attest to the accuracy of that, but there  are a lot. Usually the cie is in the middle of a word so we don’t really notice it), why has this “rule” persisted in its popularity? Why is it still unquestioningly assumed to be gospel?

It’s catchy, that’s why. We have an understandable desire for simple explanations for the complexity of the world, and when we’re presented with such an explanation, our brain wants to believe it, and so doesn’t try to question it too much. The stars control our lives, immigrants are stealing our jobs, and i before e except before c? Sounds legit. And such pithy little rules make us feel smart. Even if we didn’t make them up, doesn’t it feel immensely satisfying to say to someone, Hey, it’s i before e except after c, didn’t you know that? It gives us that little bit of control over the world, and that little bit of knowledge that someone else might not know, and that might save us from making an embarrassing spelling mistake.

But as is so often the case with English, order and control are illusions. It’s such a mongrel language, that there’s very little regularity about any of it, particularly spelling. Best not to deceive yourself with notions of control, and sit back and enjoy the ride.

7 thoughts on “I Before E, Except…

  1. morewords.com lists 542 words containing cie and 128 containing cei (though some of the former are plurals of words ending in y, for example agencies). When I searched for ‘words containing cie’, the search engine which shall not be named asked if I meant ‘words containing cei’, which suggests that people more often search for the latter (rarer) words.

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