The Truth About the 'I Before E' Rule

2 min read

It's a pretty simple rule. "I before E, except after C." But then you immediately have to start breaking rules with an addendum: "Or when sounded as A as in neighbor and weigh."

Just because it rhymes, doesn't mean it's true. When you start spelling words like "weird," "leisure," and "caffeine," all the rules go out the window. None of those words sounds like "a," nor do they have a "c" anywhere near the vowel pairing. Once again, the rules of the English language have betrayed you.

Exceptions to the Rule

Maybe you're thinking that this is a silly thing to get stuck on, and it doesn't happen that much. But the letters "c," "i," and "e" are all over your vocabulary!

"I before E" — easy enough. Almost every word that ends in a "y" turns into "ies" when made plural. Then we have words like "review," "believe," "hierarchy," "frontier," "audience," "premiere," "obedient," "priest," and "friend.

But the rhyme doesn't stop at "I before E." "Except after C" is where we get into trouble. Exceptions include: "science," "society," "ancient," "glacier," "deficient," "efficient," "proficient," "sufficient." There are repetitive spelling patterns here, but if there are so many exceptions, why the "rule"?

The most likely explanation is that the rule targets a specific pronunciation. It was meant for those instances when "ie" makes a long "e" sound. It doesn’t apply to words like “conscience,” but it does apply for words such as "conceive," "conceit," and all other permutations of words with the suffixes "-ceit" and "-ceive."

Breaking the Rules

The rule makes it seem like a long "a" sound such as "weigh" is the only exception. It's not. The long "e" sound shows up in words like "weird" and "leisure." Multi-syllable vowel pairs like "reignite" break the rule. If the “ie” falls at the end of the word — like in “species” — the rule ceases to matter.

English is the poster child for rules that are made to be broken, but the "I before E" rule may be the most famous case of linguistic disobedience ever. If you have trouble with it, you’re not alone. There’s no way to revise the rhyme to accommodate all of the exceptions, which begs the question: Should it even be a rule?

Photo credit: Green Chameleon/ Unsplash

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