A lot of times you’ll come across articles about English grammar that are like “You can do X, but not Y, and if you do Z your writing will be bad and you should feel bad.” OK, ouch. On the one hand, yes, English does have a lot of helpful rules in place that have developed over hundreds of years. And yes, rules help standardize any language, which is important so that those speaking it can all understand each other. On the other hand, absolute rules suck—and at least in English, always seem to have an exception. How do you expect a language to evolve over time without breaking a few rules here and there?
Today we’re going to talk a little bit about one of the OG English “rules:”
I before E,
Except after C
Or when sounded as A
As in neighbor or weigh.
You’ve heard it before (or at least the first half). We’ve heard it before. Pretty much every student of English since 1866 (when the first two lines showed up as a footnote in James Stuart Laurie’s Manual of English Spelling) has heard it before. It’s designed to help you remember how to spell words with IE and EI in them. Is it always right? Well…
If you’re writing a word that makes the long E sound, then as a rule it should be IE, as in piece, brief, thief, and chief. But it should be EI if the combo comes after C (like perceive, deceit, and receipt) or you’re looking for the long A sound (as in reign, surveillance, and their). Theoretically, that’s the extent of the rule, and it should cover all your bases, right? No, it doesn’t. Watch this.
Now that we have a handle on the rule, think about caffeine, leisure, seize, and weird. All of them sound like E, but they’re all spelled EI. The same goes for names like Neil and Keith.
“OK,” you may be thinking, “but the ‘except after C’ part still holds true, right?” Nope. Think financier and species. As a matter of fact, think of plurals that end in -cies (like fallacies and vacancies).
And then there are words like science and efficiency, which, frankly, just break all of the rules in the poem.
When it comes to “rules” like these, sometimes the best thing you can do is memorize the exceptions. That can be super frustrating when you’re new to writing English (and when you’ve been writing it your whole life). Still, spelling rules like this one are worth learning because they provide a framework that makes the exceptions stand out. The I before E rule may not be perfect, but it’s still useful.
English is a language that’s borrowed heavily from a lot of other languages. The rules (and “rules”) have been picked and chosen from so many places that it’s hard to keep track of them all. The truth is, there aren’t really a lot of rules in this language that are absolute. So the next time you see something telling you “Do X, but not Y, and shame on the people who do Z,” know that you can give that advice some side-eye.
Back to Top