The Surfeit of Weird Exceptions to the I-Before-E Rule

By Mark Nichol

In the chaos of spelling of the English language, some rules provide comfort — until you realize that the number of exceptions renders a rule nearly useless as a memory aid. Such is the case with the rule that in vowel pairs, i comes before e except when the pairing follows c.

The pairing ie is the default setting: Believe, die, and friend are just a few of the many words that follow the rule. However, exceptions are numerous, as exemplified in the sentence “Seize their eight feisty neighbors being weird.” And although the order after c is often ei (ceiling, deceit, receive), the order is often inverted (science, species, sufficient). To be more useful, the rule should continue, “or when pronounced like a long a, as in weigh or like a long e.”

The rule that i comes before e except after c is contradicted by the fact that more than twenty times as many words have the letter sequence cie as the sequence cei, so that’s not a very useful rule.

Also, the sequence ei often does not follow c. This is true in many categories of words, including the following ten groups:

  • proper names, such as Keith
  • chemical names like caffeine
  • words in which ei is pronounced like a long e, such as leisure (many exceptions, such as piece)
  • words in which ei is pronounced like a schwa (a weak “uh”), such as forfeit
  • words in which ei is pronounced like a long a, such as weigh (this sound is never spelled ie, except in the American English pronunciation of lingerie)
  • words in which ei is pronounced like a long i, such as height (exceptions include die)
  • rare cases of ei pronounced, for example, like a short a, such as heifer
  • words in which the vowel-and-consonant sound rhyming with ear is pronounced, such as weird (exceptions include pierce)
  • words in which the vowel-and-consonant sound rhyming with heir is pronounced, such as their (this sound is never spelled ier)
  • words in which e and i are each part of a separate syllable (albeit, being, reignite)

Ultimately, it may be wise to forget that such a rule exists and always check spelling of words that may have an ie or an ei combination.

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26 Responses to “The Surfeit of Weird Exceptions to the I-Before-E Rule”

  • Ajith Edassery

    A couple of East European friends of mine always take a dig at the English language for having a single letter pronounced differently based on the situation. g vs j, c vs s and so on and as you highlighted ei vs ie.

    In my personal opinion, I was always glad to learn the 26 letter English than our 1000+ native languages that had 50 letters or more (and variations based on the regions)

  • Andrew Halliwell

    A few things about the final bit of the above post…

    words in which ei is pronounced like a long e, such as leisure

    Leisure?? That’s pronounced with a short E. Leisure has the same E sound as leather.

    rare cases of ei pronounced, for example, like a short a, such as heifer??

    Heifer is pronounced with a short E too!
    I’ve never heard anyone, even an american pronounced it haffer.

    Frankly the whole thing is a bit of a waste of time.
    As Qi and the article itself said, the rule is broken more times than it’s enforced, so what’s the point in listing exceptions to a rule that doesn’t work in the first place? Better to just say “I before E except when it isn’t”

  • Cygnifier

    The I before E saying seems to work well enough, but maybe it is because I just have the exceptions memorized? The version of the rule that I learned runs a tad differently too: “I before E, except after C, or as sounded as A as in neighbor and weigh.”

    My favorite exception is “epideictic”, which is the name for the form of rhetoric that is focused on ceremony and ritual (with the other two forms being deliberative and forensic). And, I don’t think I’d ever consider using the rule for something like “science” because both the I and the E get pronounced separately.

    More interesting to me in this article is the rendering of some of the pronunciations. “Forfeit” with a schwa? Not in all accents — in some the ‘feit’ sounds like ‘fit’ (as in fit as a fiddle). “Heifer” with a short a? Or… with a short e, as in hefty. And Andrew’s “leisure”, which only comes with a short e for some accents; for others, it is indeed with a long e as in ‘leap’. The various correct pronunciations add such richness and color to the language!

  • Tom

    For general usage, the limerick that many of us were taught as little people has always served me well. For those seldom used words is why we have dictionaries.

  • Brian Gaines

    “words in which ei is pronounced like a long e, such as leisure”

    Isn’t that a distinctly American pronunciation? I think most of the rest of the English-speaking world use a short e.

    Andrew Halliwell says it best – “I before E except when it isn’t”

  • readingprof

    “Leisure” can be pronounced with either a long e OR a short e. Both are correct.

  • Mary

    Andrew, I’ve never heard “leisure” pronounced with a short e sound. That’s odd. I’ve only ever heard it as “lee-sure”.

    Perhaps it’s a difference in dialect or accent?

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree strongly with Cyngifier:
    More interesting to me in this article is the rendering of some of the pronunciations. “Forfeit” with a schwa? Not in all accents — in some the “feit” sounds like “fit” (as in fit as a fiddle). “Heifer” with a short a? Or… with a short e, as in hefty. And Andrew’s “leisure”, which only comes with a short e for some accents; for others, it is indeed with a long e as in “leap”.

    “Forfeit” with a schwa – not in all accents.
    As far as I am concerned, “forfeit” pronounced “for-fit” is the only one that I have ever heard in North America. I have never lived on a farm or a ranch, but other words, above, has always been “heffer” and “lee-sure”.

  • Bernadette

    I learned “i before e except after c, except in cases where it sounds like a as in weigh” also. But 20 years later I bought the Leap Frog video series for my child and also learned “when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking” and “silent e makes the first vowel say its name.”

    I pronounce “leisure” as leezure and forfeit as “forefit.” I have lived in Pennsylvania (21 years), Arkansas (21 years), and North Carolina (3.5 years now) and pretty much have always heard them pronounced that way.

  • R. E. Hunter

    I was taught an additional part of that rule that covers some of those exceptions: “I before e except after c or before gh”. But it still fails so many times that it’s questionable how useful it is.

  • thebluebird11

    Sigh. To-may-to, to-mah-to. The closing paragraph made me laugh. I think that the rule we all learned as kids is great for kids, who probably won’t come across the more seldom-used words until later in life, by which time presumably they will have mastered the basics of this i-after-e thing. As adults, we have choices of memorizing the less-used words or looking them up. For people with adult vocabularies, the rule is probably kind of useless.

  • venqax

    I think some are missing the point: *Dialect* or *accent* are exactly what STANDARD speech is aimed at overcoming. We are talking here about standard speech, so something being a *dialectical* difference is more than irrelevant, it is counterproductive. Something being dialectical does not exempt it from the standards of Standard, but precisely the opposite. And since we are talking about standard American English here, it is LEE-zhur, not LE-zhur. The short E is British, not American. Americans can and some do use the short E. That is either dialectical or simply affected. Say LEE if you don’t want to sound like a gek.

    Maybe it is symptomatic of the emphasis on written rather than spoken language, but it’s somewhat ironic that relatively useless mnemonic devices like this are taught for spelling, while genuinely useful rules of pronunciation are ignored by schools. E.g. Cs before Is and Es alone are pronounced as S while those before combinations like IA, EA, are as SHs. That would spare us miseries like speSSies. Those preceding As, Os, Us, and consonants are as Ks. That would both explain, and we hope, kill flaSSid things and fashion aSSessories Or– reaching for the stars here— Ls before Ms (as before Ks and Fs) are usually silent—CAHM down, and rub some BAHM into the PAHMS of your hands. Or using A or AN depends on whether the following word begins with a vowel sound, not necessarily a vowel letter.

  • Joe Z.

    Actually, I learned it in school as “i before e, except after c, or when sounding like ‘ay’ as in ‘neighbor’ or ‘weigh.'”

  • Gregory Bryce

    >>Mary on October 7, 2013 11:29 am

    Andrew, I’ve never heard “leisure” pronounced with a short e sound. That’s odd. I’ve only ever heard it as “lee-sure”. <<

    In Canadian English, leisure and measure are rhymes, both pronounced with a short E. (Here, I have never heard the pronunciation may-zhure that one hears in some of the U.S.)

    Admittedly, under the overwhelming influence of U.S. movies, TV and music, the American "lee-zhure" is probably gaining a foothold, as is the American lev-er, which Canadians used to consistently pronounce as a rhyme of beaver. That was before everyone in business and government started talking about "leveraging" whatever it is people leverage.

  • Deidre M. Simpson

    I agree with Brian Gaines. The United States isn’t the center of the universe, but Americans rarely seem to know just how unusual some of our practices are compared to other countries.

  • Mary Morgan

    Re: Pronunciation of leisure

    As a young child in grade school (1950s), I learned the pronunciation in school and at home with the short “e.” This was in Pennsylvania – Philly area. Then, it seems at home and in school the pronunciation changed to the “lee” sound. Frankly, I have to think now to remember to pronounce it with the “lee” sound since I learned it with the short “e” sound originally.

  • Baska

    In ancient days, I was taught “when the sound is ‘ee’, it’s i before e except after c”. That greatly reduces the number of exceptions.

    As to the other comments on pronuciation, us Aussies always say “lezure” and “heffer”. The ‘L’ in “calm” and “balm” is pronounced, but only lightly – never as “carm” or “barm”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I CANNOT AGREE WITH THIS QUOTATION MORE!
    “I think some are missing the point: “Dialect” or “accent” are exactly what STANDARD speech is aimed at overcoming. We are talking here about standard speech, so something being a “dialectical” difference is more than irrelevant, it is counterproductive.”

    I had been thinking the same thoughts already. Furthermore, this series of columns is based on North American English (look at the identities of the writers and the moderators). Hence, statements like, “I heard it this way in North-Under-Humberland” are really irrelevant. People who live on the other sides of certain oceans, please concede that fact.

  • Catherine MacGregor

    The i before e except after c rule actually works extremely well and is very useful . . . if it is taught properly: it only applies to long e sounds, and was never intended to apply to words like science, with its i and e being pronounced separately, or to words in which the combination is pronounced a, i, a schwa, or indeed any noise other than long e. Look again– you will see very few exceptions.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree heartily with Venqax except for one detail in the following:
    “genuinely useful rules of pronunciation are ignored by schools. E.g. Cs before Is and Es alone are pronounced as S while those before combinations like IA, EA, are as SHs.”

    C before I, E, and Y are pronounced as S. The possibility of Y was left out, and her are some examples:
    cynaide, Cyprus, Cyrenacia, Cyrus, cycle, Cyd (as in Cyd Charisse), Cygnus, cylinder.

    Ms. Charisse got the “Cyd” from the fact that when she was a baby, her older sibling could not say “Sis”, and it came out “Cyd”.
    D.A.W.

  • Andrew Halliwell

    For those who’ve never heard leisure spoken properly in proper english by english people…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWgb8UEiMHM

    🙂

  • Dale A. Wood

    Here is a related pronunciation rule in English:
    G usually sounds like J before E, I, or Y.
    Examples:
    gelatin, gem, general, genius, geometry, Georgia, germ, Gerry.
    giant, giraffe, gibe, gigantic, gigawatt, ginger, ginsing, gist.
    gyroscope, gymnasium, gypsum, gypster, Gypsy, gyrate.

    Some people have argued with me about this guideline, claiming that it has too many exceptions to be useful, but I tell them to go swimming with the sharks. The guideline IS useful.

    Sorry, but when I first heard of Jedi knights, I thought of the word as “Geddy”. Well, may The Force be with you, anyway, George Lucas.

    Gerry Anderson was a great British producers of TV programs – the father of such TV series as SUPERCAR, STINGRAY, FIREBALL XL-5, UFO, and THUNDERBIRDS. The first three of these were widely broadcast in the United States, and thus into southern Canada, too. As for which ones were broadcast in Canada, and hence into the northmost United States, I don’t know. There was a completely different TV series in the U.S. called PROJECT UFO. I was produced by Jack Webb and it was telecast for two years during the 1960s. This series was based on the “Project Bluebook” of the U.S. Air Force that investigated sightings of UFOs, and it was a good show.

  • Andy Staples

    The full rule – “I before E except after C, when the sound is double-E” – is more useful. Especially in British English, where we pronounce forfeit “four-fit” (to rhyme with surfeit) and leisure with a short e.

    That still leaves proper names and chemical names, of course, and I’m sure there are other exceptions, but the rule is more useful than this post suggests.

    To Brits anyway.

  • Cygnifier

    What amazing ego-posturing there is here. My point was that there are actually MULTIPLE correct pronunciations. It isn’t a matter of “the rest of the English-speaking world” (implying that the “rest” is the part that “counts,” which is pretty interesting given the range of pronunciations across both British-derived versions of English or American-derived versions of English ) or “proper English.” So if the ethnocentric egos get pushed back a bit, it becomes clear that the diversity of STANDARD Englishes is part of the richness of the world and the language. Most linguistic research shows that regional accents are in fact becoming stronger in recent decades rather than being erased due to a common media culture. Embracing the multiplicity of language seems to be much healthier than drawing lines in the sand (or on a map) — which means remembering that “my” way of saying something isn’t THE way, it may just be one of several proper and correct ways to say something.

  • Andrew Halliwell

    Stronger regional accents in recent years eh?
    Hmmm. The past century HAS diluted regional accents due to common media exposure. That can not be argued, there’s proof all around.

    Try looking up the oldham accent from 100 years ago (there are some poems and things written in the dialect). It’s very difficult to understand.

  • venqax

    Your are right, DAW. I forgot about Y. Since Y as a vowel substitutes for Is and Es, that makes sense, though.

    You are wrong, Deidre M. Simpson. The US IS the center of the universe. 🙂 jk. But is is largely the center of the English language if you consider that 2/3 of English speakers are Americans. But, the point here is that this blog– as is stated in several places– is written from an American POV. We are talking about standard American English when we talk about standards on here, for the most part. The British have had trouble with proper pronunciation for a while now. Hopefuly, American TV will eventually straighten you out! LOL (It’s DIE-nasty, as in DIE.)

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