Amending spelling rules “I before e, except after c” – so goes a well-known mnemonic rule of thumb in spelling. It’s a nice, easily remembered and oft-quoted dictum, and Edward Carney, writing in his book A Survey of English Spelling, described it as “this supreme, and for many people solitary, spelling rule”. That’s rich, coming from a spelling expert who should have known that the rule’s only problem is that it has too many exceptions to be worth learning.
It does apply to the language in its broadest sense: if one is unsure whether a word is spelt with the sequence ‘ei’ or ‘ie’, the rhyme suggests that the correct order is ‘ie’ unless the preceding letter is ‘c’, in which case it is ‘ei’. Thus, ‘ie’ appears in believe, fierce and friend, and ‘ei’ in deceive, ceiling and receipt.
Vocab blogger Michael Quinion writes how the British government raised hackles when they suggested the rule be dropped altogether, in a guide it published called Support for Spelling. The guide’s authors’ objections weren’t new. The argument against the rule was that there were too many exceptions, such as their, seize, weird, height, eight, neighbour, weigh and protein. The length of this list led an unknown wit to coin the much-quoted alternative: “I before e, except when it isn’t.”
They did concede that this is half a rule, echoing English lexicographer Henry Fowler’s observation that there’s a longer modified version: “I before e except after c when the sound is ee” as in receive, deceit and inconceivable but falling short of personal names such as Keith and Sheila.
A different qualification might amend the rule thus: “I before e, except when the sound is a, as in neighbour and weigh”. Others have added “or when the c is said like sh” as in ancient or deficient.
Support for Spelling’s final word? “There are so few words where the ei spelling for the /ee/ sound follows the letter c that it is easier to learn [those specific words]: receive, conceive, deceive (in addition to related words like receipt, conceit, and deceit), perceive and ceiling”.