The Six Spellings of “Long E”

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Some of you have had the opportunity to attend, but we wanted our members to have a sneak peak at what they have to offer.

The above quotation is from a club announcement.

The words “sneak peak” certainly seem as if they ought to match, but the word “peak” is a misspelling in this context.

The word meaning “a surreptitious look” is spelled peek.
A peak is “a projecting point.”

As I pointed out in English Spelling is Not Total Chaos, English has more phonograms (sound symbols) than it needs.

This multiplicity of spellings applies especially to the vowel sounds.

“Long E” is the vowel sound represented by the e in me.

This “long e” sound can also be represented by five other phonograms:

Achilles was wounded in his heel.
The “double e” spelling ee always represents the “long e” sound: see, kneel, feel, tee (golf term).

Physician, heal thyself.
“Long e” is the most common sound represented by ea: read, zeal, appeal, deal, meal, real. (The spelling ea can also represent two other vowel sounds.)

That man is filled with conceit.
This ei spelling for “long e” occurs in words in which the ei follows the letter c: ceiling, conceit, perceive, receipt, receive. (There’s a rule that often helps: “i before e except after c…”)

Let’s plant oats in that field.
“Long e” is spelled ie in several common words: believe, belief, brief, chief, field, niece, priest, siege, achieve, piece.

Follett wrote The Key to Rebecca.
The ey spelling for “long e” is not common in one-syllable words. Key is the only one I can think of. The phonogram ey to represent “long e” does appear at the end of two-syllable words like valley, alley, and galley. (The spelling ey more often represents the “long a” sound, as in they.)

It’s too bad that we have so many ways to spell the “long e” sound, but it’s probably too late to do anything about it–other than learn the variants.

Even Richard Mulcaster (1531-1611), an early advocate of English spelling reform, had to concede that

No set of rules can cover all points; some things must be left to observation and daily practice.*

*Baugh, A History of the English Language p. 255)

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26 thoughts on “The Six Spellings of “Long E””

  1. Right you are, Sous Rature.

    The letter i represents the long E sound in several French borrowings ending in -que (don’t forget boutique and oblique), and in at least two that end in -che (quiche, niche).

    My own preference would be to teach them as oddities when teaching the words.

    Ah, the pitfalls of trying to formulate rules for English spelling!

  2. Durn, I just thought of another one: Queen Latifah!

    And then there’s pita bread.

    Sigh. Guess I’ll just have to add the letter i to my list of letters that can represent long E.

  3. First of all: thank you for this great website!
    How about “adobe”, “Capote”, “Nike”, “Penelope”, “Hermione” and so on? I actually landed on your site while trying to find the rule regarding these words with a final long E. The rule, if any, seems to be related to imported foreign words, especially Greek. Any idea?

  4. Alan,
    Yours is an interesting question, one that I have not addressed on this site (except peripherally in Caesar Sat on the Dais.

    You’re right in concluding that the pronounced final e has to do with a word’s being a foreign borrowing.

    Of your five examples, three are from the Greek, as is the “Zoe” example in the article I mention.

    Adobe, however, is from Spanish (which borrowed it from Arabic). Capote can be one of two words, one of which is pronounced with the final /E/ and the other not.

    The surname Capote is Italian in origin; the final e is pronounced.

    The word for a hooded coat, capote, comes from French; the final e is silent.

  5. I am trying to teach my 7 year old son, who wants to know who made up all this stuff anyway, when to use all of these different spellings of the long e sound.

    Are there any rules or tricks for remembering other than the “i before e except after c”. How do I teach him to use ie instead of ee or ea?

    Any help would be gratefully appreciated. Any good website recommendations?


  6. Chris,
    The best way is not to try to teach them all at once, especially not with a 7 year old.
    First they master the long e sound in words that follow the rules “long e at the end of a syllable: me, he, we and then the rule about silent final e “E makes the E say /e/ (long e). This takes time.
    The ee spelling is a piece of cake: “E double E always says E (long e sound).

    Leave the ie, ei words until later. Much later.

    You might find my English site helpful: http://www.AmericanEnglishDoctor.com

  7. Six is quite short of the mark. I have counted eleven:

    e – be (also: fetus, legion, adobe, Korean)
    ee – bee
    ei – conceive
    ie – piece
    ea – peace
    oe – foetus
    ae – archaeology
    ey – key
    ay – quay
    aiu – Caius College, Cambridge (pronounced Keys)
    i – police, pique, amphibian, semi-

  8. … and, of course:

    y – very

    I though I once read somewhere that there were 14 ways of spelling long e – can anyone think of any more?

  9. You-all are missing one spelling of long-e and that is the spelling with the “e” with a flat line above it….which I am at a loss to know how to generate with my computer keyboard and which I believe has another definition used in medical writing, perhaps in prescriptions, I am not sure, but which I am trying to look up, hence my presence here with this observation — and appreciation if anyone can let me know how to type the e with a long sound line over it, and what it means in math/medical symbol terminology. Thanks You.

  10. Espie,
    I think most Americans pronounce that final y with a long e sound nowadays. I’ve noticed, however, in Romalda Spalding’s The Writing Road to Reading, that see gives a short i sound for it. I have heard some modern speakers pronounce “happee” as “happi”.

  11. The i in “sink” sounds like a long e to me. I’ve never noticed other people say it any other way. Same for “think”.

    Does the i in ink, sink, and think sound like a long e to you?

    When I say eenk, seenk, theenk. I’m saying ink, sink, and think.

  12. “The spelling ea can also represent two other vowel sounds.)”

    long e – Meal
    short e – Lead, read (past tense)
    long a – Great
    short i – Ocean

    That’s 4 total and I think there is more.

    Honestly the problem with the English language isn’t that there are several different ways of making a sound. Most languages do this to separate ideas. Meat and Meet have two different meanings. The real problem is that each of the spellings also represents several sounds, making it almost random.

    vowel-consonant-e: sometimes a random e is added at the end of the word anyway “Have, Examine”.

    e: usually the short e as in”pet, the” but then “she, me”.
    ei: long e “Conceive” but also long a “Neighbor” and long I “Einstein”


  13. Double e (ee) doesn’t always sound the long e sound. Been is a notable example, though I’ve been (haha) told there is at least one more…

  14. I actually know of 13 spellings for long ‘e’ in British English
    1. e – be, she, he, fever, veto, etc
    2. ea – tea, sea, meat
    3. ae – aesthetics, anaemia, paedophile
    4. i – machine, police, quarantine, visa
    5. ee – see, tree, fee, agree
    6. ei – deceive, receipt,
    7. ie – believe, chief, yield
    8. ey – key
    9. ui – mosquito, quiche
    10. eo – people
    11. ua – quay
    12.oe – subpoena, foetus
    13. is – debris, prΓ©cis,

  15. To answer Try Harrington’s question on how to generate ‘e’ with a bar over it from the PC. In Ms Word, click ‘insert’, select ‘symbols’, ‘more symbols’ and set ‘font’ to ‘ms reference sans serif. Scroll to the ninth line in Ms word 2007 and you will see it. Click on it and click ‘insert’ if you want to use it once or memorise it using the keyboard if you’d keep using it. To do this, look at the end of the box and select ‘shortcut key’ and set the key combination you want for it. To retain this memory in the PC, choose to hibernate instead of shutting down. If you shut down, you’d repeat the steps above. Thanks.

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