“I Before E Except After C” — 5 Exceptions to This Famous Rule

Thursday, May 112 min read

Necessary. Millennium. Bologna. English is filled with commonly used words that have tricky spellings, so it makes sense to create guides to aid us in remembering the correct way to spell them. One of the most notorious is the "i before e" rule — like most rules in the English language, this one was made to be broken, over and over again.

What Is "I Before E Except After C"?

This famous rhyming phrase was created to help folks remember how to spell words containing the paired letters "ie" or "ei." It first appeared in print in 1866 in the Manual of English Spelling by James Stuart Laurie, but similar versions of the rule were around before then. A later adaptation from 1880 would add some important exceptions:

I before E,

Except after C,

Or when sounded as "A,"

As in neighbor and weigh.

At first glance, it would appear this rhyming rule works. Look at "believe," "friend," "patience," and "thief." However, a modern statistician decided to put the rule to the test. He ran a program with 350,000 English words and found that while around 75% of words followed the "i before e" rule, only 25% followed the "except after c" part — there were more exceptions to the exception.

The statistician didn’t calculate the numbers on the 1880 addendums, but other grammar aficionados have long complained that the rhyme doesn’t cover all the possible spelling options offered by the "ie" and "ei" pairs. The rhyme mainly works for words with Latin or French roots. Otherwise, there are tons of exceptions.

Except After "C"

The first exception to the rule is its most famous. Some words follow the "cei" spelling guideline, such as "ceiling," "deceit," "deceive," "perceive," and "receipt." But many others break the rule with a "cie" spelling, including "ancient," "glacier," "science," and "society."

When Sounded as "A"

The other rhyming exception to this rule is the "long a" sound (as in the word "face"). This includes "dreidel," "eight," "freight," "neighbor," "weigh," and "vein."

Long "E" Sound

Though not recorded in rhyme, words with the "long e" vowel sound (as in the word "fleece") are also exceptions to this rule. These words include "species," "seize," and several words that may have alternate pronunciations, such as "either," "leisure," and "neither."

Adding Suffixes

Adding a comparative or superlative to the end of a word also changes the spelling rules. For example, when adding "-er" or "-est" to "fancy," the "except after c" rule does not apply. Instead, it becomes "fancier" or "fanciest." Other exceptions include "juicier," "lacier," "saucier," and "spicier."

Technical Words and Proper Names

Certain scientific words, such as "seismology," also break the "i before e" rule. Often, the technical terms will have an etymological root in a language that doesn’t follow the rule. Seismos is Greek for "earthquake," for example. Indeed, terms with strong ties to other cultures and languages won’t be bound by the rules of English — for example, the Muslim holiday of Eid or a house in a Spanish-speaking region called a hacienda.

Featured image credit: JohnnyGreig/ iStock

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