“I” before “e,” except after “c,”
Or when sounded as “a” as in “neighbor” and “weigh.”
This easy-to-remember jingle is one of the first spelling rules we learned as children. It has been a great source of comfort to those who feel overwhelmed by the infinite complexities of the English language. The rule is at least as old as 1866, when it appeared in James Stuart Laurie’s Manual of English Spelling. Whether it has been a year or 75 years since you were in grammar school, you have no doubt relied on or been influenced by the “I before E” rule at some point in recent days.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but you have been lied to.
As far as the first part of the mnemonic, “I before E” there is some good news. Cunningham determined that about three-fourths of all words with adjacent letters “e” and “i,” the “ie” pairing is appropriate. If you don’t know the proper spelling, go with “ie,” and there’s a 75% chance you will be right. Granted, those aren’t the kind of odds you want your brain surgeon to rely on, but for purposes of your next writing assignment, you’ll probably be ok.
The next part of the rule says that “e” is supposed to precede “i” when those letters follow the letter “c.” To test this, Cunningham analyzed all words containing “cei” or “cie.” If the rule proves true, the number of “cei” words should vastly outnumber the others.
This is where our trusty grammar train starts to go off the tracks. Words with “cie” outnumber “cei” words by a margin of three to one. In other words, the ratio of words that use “i” before “e” after “c” is the same as for all words without a “c.”
There are, of course, the words that conform to the rule, such as ceiling, conceive, and deceit. For each word that follows the rule, however, we have twice as many that do not, such as spicier, vacancies, conscience, and spacier.
Cunningham tasked his computer with finding any scenario where a reasonably-reliable rule could be developed. If you struggle with the spelling of “Rottweiler,” “weight,” or “weird,” you should memorize “‘I’ before ‘E,’ except after ‘W.’” It turns out that this is a pretty solid rule of spelling on which you can plant your feet.
A study before the computer age reached the same conclusion as Cunningham’s comprehensive analysis. Leonard B. Wheat, in his 1932 article “Four Spelling Rules,” observed, “if it were not for the fact that the jingle of the rule makes it easy to remember (although not necessarily easy to apply), the writer would recommend that the rule be reduced to ‘I usually comes before e,’ or that it be discarded entirely.”
One variation of the rule attempts to salvage the proposition with, “‘I’ before ‘E,’ except after ‘C,’ when the sound is ‘ee.’” Another adds, “or when sounding like ‘A,’ as in neighbor or weigh.”
These, too, fail to carry the day, as any “financier” who accepts a “counterfeit” dollar can tell you.
If all of these exceptions weren’t enough, there are a few words that are a mouthful of syllables and succeed in breaking both the “i before e” and “except after c” formulations at once: “cheiromancies” (palm-reading), “cleidomancies” (divination through using a hanging key as a pendulum), “eigenfrequencies” (a natural frequency of a system), and “oneiromancies” (divination through dream interpretation).
Merriam-Webster tried to make sense of all of the exceptions with a brilliant version of the rule, admittedly a bit harder to memorize:
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’.
I before E…
…except in a zeitgeist of feisty counterfeit heifer protein freight heists reining in weird deified beige beings and their veiny and eidetic atheist foreign schlockmeister neighbors, either aweigh with feigned absenteeism, seized by heightened heirloom forfeitures (albeit deigned under a kaleidoscope ceiling weighted by seismic geisha keister sleighs) or leisurely reimbursing sovereign receipt or surveillance of eight veiled and neighing Rottweilers, herein referred to as their caffeinated sheik’s Weimaraner poltergeist wieners from the Pleiades.