There was a brief brouhaha this week over the UK government's guidance to schools in a pamphlet called "Support For Spelling" aimed at elementary schools. The familiar spelling rule that says "i before e except after c", according to the document, "is not worth teaching". The reason is supposed to be that it doesn't account for words like "sufficient", "veil", and "their". The discussion about it on Radio 4 was just about the most stupid I have ever heard on a serious national talk station. There was a man who equated abandonment of the teaching of this rule with the abandonment of rules altogether; there was an outright claim that English has no rules at all; there was a woman (a senior lecturer in education) who appeared to think that believe was a counterexample, when of course it complies; there was an interviewer who seemed to be pushing the interviewees to talk about whether spelling should be taught at all…
The document itself appears (from press reports — I have not seen it) to get the rule wrong. (It can apparently be downloaded from this site. I am too busy today to download and read it.) The rule is always taught, by anyone who knows what they are doing, as "i before e except after c when the sound is "ee". That is, to put it more technically, when a two-letter symbol composed of a letter <i> and a letter <e> spells the English vowel phoneme [i:], the normal case is for the symbol to be <ie> rather than <ei>. Thus "believe" has <ie> but "receive" has <ei>.
Press reports suggest that the authors of the document either don't know the rule, or cannot reason, or cannot spell. The words "sufficient", "veil", and "their" are irrelevant. The word "weird" is sometimes cited as an exception, but in British English it is not: the <ei> represents the diphthong [ɪə], not the monophthong [i:]. (There might be analyses of rhotic dialects like American English that treat "weird" as [wi:rd]; in that case you could say "weird" is an exception.) "Protein" would be a genuine exception. But in general, the rule seems to me a very helpful guide to one small point in the hideous mess that is English orthography
I don't yet know a lot about this, only that I heard an astoundingly stupid discussion about a non-story concerning an apparently unjustified claim in a publication I haven't seen. Perhaps some of the commenters below will be able to explain more. But I had a distinct feeling that public understanding of language had falllen to a new low.
Some of the press reports quote Jack Bovill, chairman of the Spelling Society, as saying that words such as "vein" and "neighbour" make the rule meaningless: "There are so many exceptions that it's not really a rule," he is reported as saying. But of course "vein" and "neighbour" respect the rule (unless you leave out the crucial "when the sound is ee").
[Within half an hour commenters Richard Buck and Emily Morgan had indeed cast further light on the issues, bless them. Specifically, what the document actually says is basically right in every respect (by "clear ee sound" they mean monophthongal [i:]). They are saying that teaching the list of "-cei-" words directly is a better strategy than teaching the rule: it is not sufficiently general to pay its way. It was the moronic press reports and radio discussions that made it sound as if rules were being abandoned and (one was invited to infer) standards lowered. —GKP]