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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”.

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