Each week proofreader Hannah Jones discusses and offers a remedy to common problems we encounter when writing. Today she discusses i before e except after c and whether there are too many exceptions to prove the rule.
i before e except after c is one of the most well-known spelling mnemonics, one that most people learning English encounter early on. However, it is also arguably one of the most misleading 'rules' as it has so many exceptions. So, how useful is it?
There are many occasions when the saying holds true. We have i before e in words such as:
believe, field, priest, relief, shield
and e before i after c in words such as:
ceiling, conceive, deceit, receipt, receive
However, there are also many cases where the 'rule' falls down. We find i before e after c in words such as:
ancient, efficient, science, society, species
and e before i not after c in words such as:
feisty, forfeit, protein, seize, sleigh
It has been suggested that these exceptions can be incorporated into the mnemonic. The 'rule' is sometimes expanded to:
i before e,
except after c
or when sounded as "a"
as in neighbour or weigh.
However, this still leaves many exceptions (including most of those listed above).
Alternatively, the mnemonic could be restricted to applying only to cases in which the spelling represents a "long e" sound. This version works quite well, allowing for words such as believe and ceiling (which contain the "long e" sound), as well as ancient and feisty (which do not), and only has a couple of exceptions such as species.
So is it worth learning this rule at all? Well, in my opinion, i before e except after c is useful as long as you remember to only apply it to words with a "long e" sound. This does help you spell a number of words and has very few exceptions.
For cases when the spelling doesn't represent a "long e" sound, however, it is best just to learn the spellings. If in doubt, look it up!