i before e except after c

SpellingI was fairly young when I found that the rule ‘i before e except after c’ sometimes led my spelling astray. I remember being very disappointed that adults had told me something that wasn’t completely true.

It would probably have helped if someone had told me it is spelling advice that only really applies when the combination of i and e is pronounced ee:

believe
ceiling
receive
siege

If the combination of i and e is pronounced ay, the rule does not apply:

beige
neighbour

The rule also does not apply if the combination is pronounced i:

eider
height

Or if the i and the e are pronounced separately:

holier
occupier

There are some words that simply do not obey the rule, and these just have to be learnt:

caffeine
heir
species

The simple and general explanation for the exceptions is that many of those words were formed differently (from two or more parts) or come from another language. I would have been placated by that.


Sources:

  • Fowler, H. W. and Butterfield, J. (2015) Fowler’s dictionary of modern English usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • New Hart’s rules: the handbook of style for writers and editors (2014) 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

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