‘i before e, except after c’
This is probably the best-known of all spelling rules, although it is often claimed that there are more exceptions than there are words that follow the rule. An episode of the BBC TV show QI which highlighted the limitations of the rule suggested that there were 923 words to which the rule failed to apply, concluding that the rule ought to be recast as ‘i before e, except for the following 923’, followed by a listing of the 923 exceptions which you just have to learn. Or alternatively, in Alan Davies’s elegant reformulation: ‘If in doubt, look it up you lazy git’. Because of these many exceptions, the UK Education department recommended that it no longer be taught in schools. This caused an uproar in the British press, as fans of the rule leaped to its defence.
The reason that people find the rule so unhelpful is because they often omit the second half: ‘when the sound rhymes with bee’. If you limit it to words that contain this sound, it becomes considerably more regular:
The following words all have i before e:
The following words all have e before i:
Applying the rule in this way means that words like neighbour, foreign, height, beige, their, leisure are not exceptions, since they do not have the “ee” sound.
The same is true of words like science, glacier, ancient, efficient, concierge – which have ie after c – since they do not have the “ee” sound either.
If we restrict the rule to words with the “ee” sound, there are in fact just a handful of genuine exceptions:
There are a few further special cases that need to be taken into account:
You might be thinking that weird is another exception, but this isn’t strictly the case as it has the “ee” sound as part of a combination of vowels – known as a diphthong. If you think this is special pleading and that this is just another exception, that’s fine: you just need to remember that weird is weird and has ei instead of ie.
The second problem case concerns either/neither. You might think that these are also exceptions, since they have ei but no c. But, whether the rule applies to these words depends upon your pronunciation. Some people pronounce these words with the “ee” sound – in which case they are indeed exceptions. However, others pronounce them with a long “ii” sound, in which case the rule doesn’t actually apply to them.
The third problem concerns words like policy, and whose plural is therefore spelled policies. While these do have the “ee” sound and so might be taken to follow the rule, they are plural endings and so follow the rules for forming plurals instead.
This much-maligned rule is therefore more regular than it is generally given credit for. The worst that can be said about it is that there aren’t many words that it actually applies to.