I Before E, Except After C

By Maeve Maddox

I’ve read that the spelling mnemonic “I before E except after C” is a useless rule “best forgotten.”

I beg to differ.

English vocabulary abounds with words borrowed from other languages, along with foreign spelling conventions. Any spelling rule we can come up with is certain to have exceptions. Nevertheless, spelling rules 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 is extremely useful.

First, the “I before E” mnemonic in its entirety:

I before E,
Except after C,
And when sounded like A
As in neighbor and weigh.

Let’s see how far this rule will take us with common words.

I before E
achieve
believe
belief
brief
chief
die
field
fierce
friend
lie
lingerie
niece
pie
piece
pierce
prairie
priest
siege

Except after C
ceiling
conceit
conceive
deceive
receipt
receive
perceive

And when sounded like A,
as in neighbor and weigh

heir
neighbor
reign
rein
skein
surveillance
their
veil
vein
weigh

Note: The words their and heir can be learned with this list. For one thing, the learner can associate their with they, which is pronounced with long a. For another, their is one of those high-frequency words that anyone who reads and writes at all should be able to master by completion of second grade. Heir can be learned with the mnemonic device of a “spelling pronunciation” that addresses the silent h as well as the ei spelling.

Exceptions to the Rule
caffeine
counterfeit
either
forfeit
foreign
heifer
leisure
neither
sovereign
seized
weird

This list of 46 words is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a fair gauge of how far the old jingle can take you in spelling the ie/ei words you are most likely to want to write.

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16 Responses to “I Before E, Except After C”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree: the rule “i before e except after c” is a great starting point.

    Then it is curious that we have such spellings as “Pierce” and “Peirce”, and the odd spelling of “Keibler” (which ought to be “Kiebler”), and the endless confusion between “Wiener” and “Weiner”.
    “Feinstein” gives you the correct pronunciation in German because “ei” has the sound of a long “I” in German. Likewise to the word “nein”, which is familiar to many English speakers, but “rein”, “reign”, and “vein” are not pronounced that way in Engish. “Wein” sounds just like “wine”, and they mean the same thing.

    A lot of the confusion (in English) comes from the fact that in German (and presumably Anglo-Saxon), the combinations “ei” and “ie” have distinct vowel sounds that are always used.
    In a few irregular verbs in German, this difference appears in the conjugation. For example “bleiben” (to remain) changes to “blieben” in some of the conjugated forms, and the vowel sound does change.
    Hence, these verbs fall into the same category as {sing, sang, sung}. That is is an interesting irregular verb because its three principal parts are nearly the same in German: {singen, sang, gesungen}. Thus, “sang” is exactly the same in both languages. Also, for past participles, the prefix “ge” vanished in English over 400 years ago.
    Not all German verbs take this prefix, but most of them still do.
    D.A.W.

  • Ian Webster

    Some of your suggestions under ‘when sounded as A’ sound strange.
    On this side of the pond, ‘heir’ and ‘their’ rhyme with air, not a long A. And while ‘sovereign’ may seem like an exception, its root is ‘reign’ after all.
    Dale’s comments are interesting. Unfortunately English pronunciations, unlike German, go their own merry way without thought to our spelling rules!

  • AnWulf

    @Ian … truthfully, the root of sovereign isn’t ‘reign’: from Old French soverain, based on Latin super ‘above’ The change in the ending was due to association with reign.

    Once again, it all points to the need for more spelling reforms. It seems that we hav at least 10 ways of spelling the ā vowel:

    Inveighing in the same vein, the great broad-gauged dictator made it plain that during his reign the way to stay out of jail was to obey without feigning and pay without complaining.

    Here a, a-e, ai, au, ay, ea, ei, eig, eigh, and ey are all said alike. It is hard to imagine how any system of spelling cood be worse.

  • R. E. Hunter

    I was taught the rule as “I before E except after C or before GH”. The last part handles many cases otherwise viewed as exceptions.

  • Maeve

    Ian,
    “Their” and “heir” are not pronounced with an A sound in American English either. My note about teaching them with the “neighbor/weigh” list was inadvertently dropped from the post. They are words to be taught with the help of mnemonics. “Their” can be associated with “they,” which is pronounced with the A sound. The silent “h” in “heir” must be pointed out anyway, so a silly spelling pronunciation can be used to help the learner remember the spelling of this “ei” word.

  • Maeve

    R.E.,
    I think that teaching the combination “eight” as “four-letter A” is the easiest approach.

  • Cesara

    I’ve always wanted to know, are there other mnemonic rules like this one, for spelling conventions or what have you? This is the only one of this sort I’ve heard of…

  • Maeve

    GRRRRR

    Not “eight” (wretched automatic spelling corrections-they drive me wild! Especially when I’m trying to create a spelling exercise!

    Four-letter EIGH.

  • Maeve

    Anwulf,
    Too much energy is wasted complaining about English spelling. Yes, it is more challenging than that of other modern languages, but English grammar is far easier; think of extra time learning to spell as a trade-off for not having to make nouns and adjectives agree in gender. Besides, nobody has to learn to spell all the words in English–only the ones they use.

  • venqax

    “Feinstein” gives you the correct pronunciation in German because “ei” has the sound of a long “I” in German…”Wein” sounds just like “wine”, and they mean the same thing.
    A lot of the confusion (in English) comes from the fact that in German…

    DAW: Best not to over-equate English and German. Their respective spelling traditions have little to do with each other. Wein doesn’t “sound just like wine”. It isn’t pronounced Vine, as it would be in German. Feinstein, e.g. may happen to be pronounced as it is in German (or Yiddish) but that is purely accidental. Likewise Wiener, Weiner, Epstein, Friedman, Freidman, etc. which are all pronounced randomly and inconsistently with EYE or EE sounds. All that reflects is their subjective Anglicizations. German pronunciation, like others, hasn’t been faithfully duplicated in English. And in any case, proper names are often exempted from “rules” of spelling even in their native languages.

  • venqax

    Maeve and AnWulf: I agree with MM that far too much is made of the “chaotic” nature (mayhem, maybe?) of English spelling. It is actually not nearly as rule-less as most people think, but the rules are not taught in modern “educational” institutions. In other recent posts here, e.g.; the hard vs soft G, the hard vs soft C, the sound of Q in English, the cited rules are relevant to spelling as much as to pronunciation. The old canard that, GHOTI could spell FISH is undone when one realizes that 1) GH never makes an F sound at the beginning of a word and 2) TI never makes an SH sound at the end of one. As for the O, that is nearly unique to the word “women” and I don’t think you could find any language whose orthography/pronuncation had no exceptions.

  • wes

    The list of exceptions is too short – two of the most common rule violations are science (my favorite class all through school) and height (part of the name of the street I grew up on). I still have trouble with ie and ei.

  • venqax

    @wes: True, height shares its affliction with sleight and not much else; probably not enough for a rule of any kind (there is a Scottish English word “skeigh” pronounced as “skeek” so even another sound for ei, but that is reaching). EI digraphs are not as common as IEs, and there are exceptions like you mention. Fittingly, weird is another one.

    But with science you don’t really have an exception. There the I and the E are not forming one sound but are being separately pronounced. When the vowel sound made by an I is immediately followed by an E letter and sound– 2 distinct vowels in a row– you don’t really have an IE combination (digraph). You just have an E that happens to follow an I. So: pliers, flier, drier, glacier, financier, etc.

  • Shing

    The spelling mnemonic “I before E except after C” IS a useless rule. If someone really takes this rule to heart, it will interfere with their remembering how to spell.

    The better simpler rule is Just: “cei” instead of “cie”
    “cie” is always wrong.

    Simple.

  • Greg

    Sorry Shing, but if that rule were the case then there’d be no science! I understand there is a lot of confusion about the rule, as there is confusion about a lot of spelling rules. The thing that needs to remembered however is that, yes there will always be exceptions to the rules, but as someone else alluded to, these are generally due to the word’s derivations. I teach my classes spelling rules as I’ve found it helps to learn the majority of rules. As a person with dyslexia, I’ve found them very helpful to me also.

  • Carol Reidy

    I an so surprised that no one learned the rhyme the way we learned it in school: I before E, except after C, or when followed by G.
    Of course, it looks like the G part only includes some of the words where there is an A sound, like weigh and neighbor.
    However, this is the way we learned it in school and it was helpful, but there are so many exceptions.

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