I before E

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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]



73 Comments

  1. Adrian Morgan said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 3:10 am

    Elsewhere online I've expressed the same point of view you have (that the authors of the document evidently don't know the rule), so here I will simply suggest that one reason why "weird" is often cited as an exception may be that people feel the word "weird" should violate one or two patterns. From a certain (non-scientific) point of view there is something amiss if it does not…

  2. Richard M Buck said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 3:12 am

    The relevant passage is on p106, and suggests that the authors of the guide do understand what they're writing about; unfortunately, from what you say, the people asked to comment don't.

    Formatting stripped by copying and pasting, but I haven't time to put it back in…

    Note: The i before e except after c rule is not worth teaching. It applies only to words in which the ie or ei stands for a clear /ee/ sound and unless this is known, words such as sufficient, veil and their look like exceptions. There are so few words where the ei spelling for the /ee/ sound follows the letter c that it is easier to learn the specific words: receive, conceive,deceive (+ the related words receipt, conceit, deceit), perceive and ceiling.

  3. Emily Morgan said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 3:20 am

    What the report actually says is:
    Note: The i before e except after c rule is not worth teaching. It applies only to words in which the ie or ei stands for a clear /ee/ sound and unless this is known, words such as sufficient, veil and their look like exceptions. There are so few words where the ei spelling for the /ee/ sound follows the letter c that it is easier to learn the specific words: receive, conceive,deceive (+ the related words receipt, conceit, deceit), perceive and ceiling. (page 106)

    Personally, I recall learning the rule as "I before E except after C", with no qualifications about sound, in which case sufficient et al. do look like exceptions.

  4. mollymooly said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 3:38 am

    Mark Liberman suggests "i before e no matter what"

    Fowler's English Usage (1st ed.) says

    the rule is 'i before e except after c' is very useful; it applies only to syllables with the vowel sound ē ; words in which that sound is not invariable, as either, neither, inveigle do not come under it; seize is an important exception [...a few rarer terms are discussed]

    Burchfield's Fowler's English Usage (3rd ed.) has

    One of the traditional spelling rules in its simplest form is 'i before e except after c' (so believe, brief, fiend, hygiene, niece, priest, shield, siege, etc., but ceiling, conceive, receive, receipt, etc). The rule can heklpfully be extended by adding 'except when the word is pronounced with /eɪ/' [...there follows a big list of further tweaks, each with its associated exceptions]"

    To my mind, Burchfield is guilty of a major incorrection of Fowler's original text.

  5. mollymooly said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 3:45 am

    I don't agree with the p.106 contention as quoted; it seems to be saying the rule is not worth teaching because it has too few exceptions. The "i before e when sounded as /i:/" part is useful, even if the -cei- exceptions are few.

  6. Ian Tindale said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 4:02 am

    Unless you were to make up a new rule: words that have an 'ee' sound that comes after a 'c' , such as 'receive, conceive,deceive, perceive', but can then be followed (in a different version) with 'ception', such as 'reception, conception, deception, perception' should be 'ei'. And also if the word is ceiling (which has a weird spelling).

  7. John Cowan said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 4:31 am

    I was taught a different maxim (though of course I have also learned the traditional one): "If the letter c you spy, put the e before the i." If this is likewise understood as a spelling rule for the sound /si:/, then the only exceptions in my 30,000+ word pronouncing wordlist are specie and species.

  8. Mary Bull said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 5:45 am

    I learned the rule from my second-grade teacher in 1934. She presented it in the form of a quatrain: "i before e/ except after c/ or when sounded like a/ as in neighbor and weigh."

    It has served me well all my life, although for spelling I have mostly relied, successfully, on my visual memory of words. I think the rule is useful. I did teach it to my students when I became a teacher, and it seemed to me that it helped them, too.

    On the other discussion point of whether the majority of English speakers can reason clearly, in my experience there's been no change over my lifetime. The great majority cannot.

  9. Abe Hassan said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 7:43 am

    Huh! I'd never heard the full rule as that — I had always been taught, "i before e, except after c, or when sounding like 'a' as in neighbor or weigh." Which, of course, isn't accurate, either.

  10. Craig Russell said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 7:57 am

    The rhyme I learned in elementary school was:

    "I before E
    Except after C,
    Or when pronounced "ay"
    As in "neighbor" or "weigh".

    There was never any specification that this rule was for spelling the 'ee' sound (although I guess it's sort of implied by the "except when pronounced 'ay'" part).

    I seem to recall teachers correcting misspellings like 'freind' for 'friend' with this rule, though. Until today, I had never heard that it is only supposed to be for the 'ee' sound, and now the whole thing makes a lot more sense to me.

    As for the question of how to teach it, I think a memorable rhyme beats a detailed set of instructions that students will forget any day.

  11. Alan Gunn said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 8:28 am

    I learned the same version Mary Bull did. Later on, in high school, we learned this sentence as a partial but useful list of exceptions: "The weird foreigner seizes neither leisure nor sport at its height." My English teacher liked these silly sentences as spelling guides. I still use "The suit on a sergeant looks like serge on an ant" to remember how to spell a word that's always been hard for me to remember.

    As for the idea that "it's easier to learn specific words," I think this varies a lot among students. Why not give them both and let them choose whatever technique works for them?

  12. Ed Cormany said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 8:55 am

    my favorite formulation of the I before E rule is still comedian Brian Regan's interpretation:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxenUzZPFiQ#t=56s

    listen through the section on plurals too, if you haven't heard it before

  13. Mary Bull said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    I like this eminently sensible comment from Alan Gunn:

    As for the idea that "it's easier to learn specific words," I think this varies a lot among students. Why not give them both and let them choose whatever technique works for them?

    And o the other spelling memory aids he mentioned, I'd like to add my own favorite: "There is a rat in separate."

  14. Mary Bull said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    I managed to my chagrin to leave the "t" out of "to" in my comment above. Sorry.

  15. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 9:13 am

    You know… Is it all right for me to comment on my own post? Reading all this, and the statistical analysis by Mark Liberman that mollymooly links to above, it suddenly occurred to me that the important thing about the news story is nothing to do with spelling. It has to do with why on earth there are government sources putting together packets of advice on whether to teach a subregularity of spelling by explicit mention of a rule or by memorizing of individual examples (see Alan Gunn above). It's so early 20th century to think that books have to be written by government experts and sent out to the benighted teachers in the boonies. Today teachers have the Internet. They have Google and Wikipedia and Language Log. They can figure things out the moment they decide it's a potential issue (and if they think it isn't an issue, they won't read a government report on it, will they?). It is deeply strange that so much money is spent on centralized government controller behavior. If we dismantled central government education authorities devoted to trying to tell teachers what to do, and put the saved money into (a) higher pay for teachers and (b) Internet access to permit teachers to access Language Log, it is highly probable that the value for money would be greater… Or am I beginning to sound like a libertarian loony? Don't answer that.

  16. Chris said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    There's something in what you say, but… I was about to type that there's no need for centralized standards in spelling because there is no spelling equivalent of creationism or revisionist history, but then I realized that was true for spelling, but not so true for language in general. If centralized standards can wipe out zombie rules like the split infinitive, then you can start fitting me for jackboots.

  17. Jonathan said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 10:03 am

    For certain American English pronunciations, "neither" and "leisure" are exceptions as well. I learned a set of exceptions as "Neither leisured sheik seized Deirdre's weird foreign heights," although "heights" and "foreign" doesn't make any sense unless you you use the "except when it sounds like neighbor" version.

  18. Andrew said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 10:15 am

    I do not think I was ever formally taught this rule: I knew it as a bit of folk wisdom. This should be borne in mind; children do know, or believe, things other than what they are taught in school, and eliminating a rule from formal teaching will not necessarily make it go away.

    I don't think I was ever told the proviso about the sound being 'ee', though I managed to work out quite quickly that that is what was meant. Some of my classmates did not, and produced such wonderful forms as 'thier' and on one occasion 'dyieng' (present participle of 'dye').

  19. KCinDC said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 10:16 am

    I've always hated this "rule" because my name is Keith. Sheilas are no doubt similarly annoyed.

  20. Mr Punch said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    Is "protein" really "a genuine exception"? It's a scientific term, though now widely used, derived from Greek, and was originally three syllables; I have known people who promounced it that way (although I'm not sure that any of them are still alive).

  21. KCinDC said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 10:46 am

    Mr Punch, the rule doesn't say anything about special treatment for scientific terms, Greek derivation, or historical or alternative pronunciations.

  22. Richard M Buck said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    the rule doesn't say anything about special treatment for scientific terms, Greek derivation, or historical or alternative pronunciations

    …or for Kieths and Shielas.

    Now I feel like Captain Carrot.

  23. peter said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    Geoff @ 9.13 am — I sense you are having a reaction to government nanny-state activity typical of foreigners resident in Britain. How was it possible, I asked myself, that my British taxes could be used to fund an advertising campaign on the nation's buses aimed at persuading people not to give money to other people begging in the street? Surely, the quarter of a million pounds spent on this campaign would have been better spent being given to those very same beggars, or, perhaps, not being spent at all. However, the only people of my acquaintance who were similarly upset by the contemptible immorality of this recent government campaign were fellow-foreigners.

  24. mae said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    Fun with "ie" and "ei" — a crossword puzzle with that theme:
    http://chronicle.com/review/crossword/20090515.htm

  25. Nathan said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    @Mr Punch: Paul Harvey seemed to always pronounce protein as three syllables.

  26. Sili said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    Dunno if this is libertarian (looney is implied) too, but I'd favour letting kids spell (almost) as they please.

    So if central government were to make a pronouncement it should be that teachers can no longer mark down a student for using "cieling", "iether" or "percieve".

  27. Chud said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 11:56 am

    Hello KCinDC. I, too, am named Keith. Although I had heard (and utilized) the "i before e", etc. rule, I don't recall even thinking about my name contradicting it. But here's where Keiths and Sheilas may really get a big bonus: I had always had problems with spelling "their". Then, when I was about 25 years old, I figured out that "their" had the same "ei" as Keith. Since then, I haven't once mis-spelled it.

    Here's another related benefit of the "ei" in "Keith": When I was about 13 years old, a friend wrote "I pledge eternal love. -Kieth" on Beth Brown's driveway in shoe polish. That poor devil had followed the rule! Beth (a good speller) realized that I was not the fellow who had written it. Good thing, too, for I only loved her another five years.

  28. Karen said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    At the risk of just chiming in, I too never heard "i before e except after c when the sound is "ee", only the quatrain. Your version is more helpful, although there are still exceptions. Keith, Sheila, seize, leisure, etc….

  29. wally said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    So whats up with none of the early commentors mentioning "as in neighbor and weigh", and then everybody mentioning it? Is this just an American thing, so that we all had to wake up and get a chance to comment?

  30. Randy said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

    "i before e except after c or pronounced like a as in neighbor or weigh, and on weekends and holidays and all throughout May, and you'll never be right no matter what you say."

  31. Cheryl Thornett said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

    The UK education system, the English part of it in particular, is highly prescriptive of what teachers should teach in primary school. There is a national curriculum for certain key subjects, and very little time for teaching anything else. Oddly enough, this does not currently extend to a prescriptive approach to formal grammar, perhaps because there is a generation of teachers who were never taught formal grammar, descriptive or prescriptive, and who therefore don't know the terminology.

    There has been a succession of orthodoxies for teaching initial literacy: phonetics, whole word recognition, 'real books' and now synthetic phonetics (as an early stage).

  32. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    I'm interested by the notion that the "rule" may be a better fit for at least some dialects of BrE than for at least my dialect of AmE (where weird, either, leisure are all counterexamples). It makes perfect sense of course, particularly given the wide range of dialect variation on vowels/dipthongs, that any given spelling convention might be a better fit for some dialects than others. I wonder whether there is any currently extant dialect of English for which the spelling conventions in the aggregate are on average a measurably better (albeit still highly imperfect) fit, or whether instead every currently extant dialect is so far removed from whatever historical pronunciations may have been fossilized in the spelling conventions (and of course different strata of the lexicon may have been orthographically fossilized at different points in time and some loanwords etc were never spelled quasi-phonetically) that the distribution of "fit" among dialects as respects their current pronunciation is pretty random.

    I would at least think that the orthographic use of "r" is a better fit for rhotic dialects, but maybe that's just my own native-rhoticist prejudice. And perhaps the non-rhotic dialects have offsetting advantages, as in their funny pronunciations of the first syllables of "either" or "leisure."

  33. Wordoch said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

    Clever conceit but undoubted deceit
    That words without c be spelt with ie.
    The confusion it's caused leaves Prof Pullum
    In awe, but who cares, the public know nothing.
    I'll return to perceiving the ceiling.

  34. Theo said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    I always learned the rule thusly:

    i before e except after c or when sounding like "ae" as in "neighbor" and "weigh" unless the word is weird, foreign, or scientific.

    The first part was mentioned by various commenters. The last line is my general-purpose exception. Granted, "foreign" and "scientific" don't make an "ee", but I certainly do pronounce "weird" with a single syllable and an "ee" vowel.

    (Side note: my spell-check objects to the word "commenters", although not "commenter". I think that "interlocutors" is almost right, except the root is clearly "locution", which sounds to me like it must be oral — a written locution would be a written representation of a spoken conversation. Perhaps "conversants" is the appropriate term for people who leave comments on a blog, or "responders" if, as so often happens, one commenter does not read the other comments. "posters" are clearly those who leave the original post. The "commentariate" would be the collection of all of us who respond.)

  35. Boris said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

    It's interesting that the difference in pronunciation of either is always identified with a British/American thing English. Although I'm an immigrant from Russia, I know most of my English from American sources, and yet, say (and hear) eye-ther and ee-ther interchangeably. This also applies to the words neither and route, but not to leisure (lee-sure)

  36. David Conrad said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

    I also learned the "neighbor and weigh" variant, and that would seem to take care of "veil" and "their". The rule is useful even though it has exceptions, and the exceptions were hardly unknown to those who invented the rule.

  37. Alan said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    @peter, Geoff is not a foreigner resident in Britain, he's British.

  38. Brett said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

    I first learned this rule (in America) from a second grade teacher who had grown up somewhere in the British Isles. (I can't say more precisely than that; my dialect recognition skills at that age were limited.) What was interesting was that she gave us the rule as approxmately: "i before e; except after c, or in a neighborly way when it sounds like 'a'." The connection to the "a" sound in "neighbor" and "weigh" was lost (although that caused me no difficulty in committing the general rule and important exceptions to memory). It was only as a teenager that I learned of this connection through my younger brother, who had learned the more usual version of the couplet at his (different) elementary school.

    While it's possible that I misheard the rule, I doubt it. Rather, I think my teacher had misheard it long before and never been corrected. What she said did have the intended meaning, and she taught students (advanced second graders) who had probably never heard the rule before (except perhaps as just "i before e, except after c" and wouldn't know anything was missing.

  39. John Laviolette said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    I think the problem with the "i before e except after c" rule is that the commentators — and, apparently, teachers, based on the above anecdotal evidence — think of it as a stand-alone rule. I remember being taught the rule as an *exception* to the more general rule about vowel pairs: "when two vowels go a-walking, the first one does the talking". The i-before-e rule is saying that a vowel pair with the long-e /i:/ sound is spelled differently than we'd expect.

  40. Marc Moskowitz said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

    One big problem with i before e except after c when the sound is "ee" is that it can be read two ways:
    1. (i before e except after c) when the sound is "ee"
    indicating a specific rule about this digraph when it produces a specific sound, and

    2.i before e except (after c when the sound is "ee"),
    indicating a general rule about the digraph with one very specific exception.

  41. Stephen Jones said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

    Today teachers have the Internet. They have Google and Wikipedia and Language Log. They can figure things out the moment they decide it's a potential issue

    Unfortunately not very many of them can spell, though.

  42. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

    @ John L.: Hmm. The "general rule" works for beak but not for break, to take the first contrasting pair that popped into my head. And "ie" is not an exception in e.g. pie or lie (or spies or denies). I perhaps should have paid closer attention this academic year since my older daughter (second grade) was being taught lots of spelling "rules" (plus a few words each week that were taught as exceptions and were just supposed to be learned one at a time). But she seems to be far enough along with respect to her peer group that I have had no incentive to worry if the particular pedagogical approach being taken is effective as opposed to ineffective but irrelevant to her ability to acquire the necessary knowledge through other means.

  43. mollymooly said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

    I wonder whether there is any currently extant dialect of English for which the spelling conventions in the aggregate are on average a measurably better (albeit still highly imperfect) fit

    I nominate my dialect of Irish English. None of "oar", "or", "war", and "awe" rhyme for me; nor do "ant", "aunt", "haunt", and "aren't"; nor "merry", "marry", "Mary"; they're all pronounced as spelt. Nor does "three" sound like "tree", "pen" like "pin", or "tea" like "tay", as in stage Oirish accents. I guess phonological conservatism followed by rapid growth of literacy makes a better sound-to-spelling fit.

    Perhaps through emerald-tinted glasses, Irish people report often being complemented in Britain for their good spelling. Possibly the Scots are better still, if they better maintain the distinction between "birth-berth", "fir-fur", "earn-urn".

  44. Mr Fnortner said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    Well, someone should teach these children to spell, or they will continue growing up to become members of the government who can't think.

  45. Boris said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

    Has anyone noticed that the I before E rule only makes sense if you already know that there is an EI or IE sequence in a word? I mean, all the sounds that IE and EI make could be spelled with other letters. And how do you tell the difference?

  46. Robert Morris said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

    @Boris: As you've noticed, several words in American English can have more than one acceptable pronunciation depending on … well, who knows what, because as far as I can tell, it isn't regional, and I even know members of the same family who have different usual pronunciations. "Either" and "neither" are good examples (you'll find both /i/ and /aɪ/), as are "route" (/aʊ/ or /u/) and "roof" (/u/ or /ʊ/)—and those are just a few.

  47. Robert Morris said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

    Like a few other commenters, I learned this rule as "I before E, except after C and when sounding like A, as in 'neighbor' and 'weigh'." This isn't quite as accurate as Geoff's version ("I before E, except after C, when sounding like 'ee'"), but it is certainly better than leaving off this proviso.

    Of course, I've also heard my fair share of manglings: "I before E, except after C, and when sounding like A, is a neighbor away" (I'm not sure what that could possibly mean except that E and I must be separated by some extra letter when producing an/e(ɪ)/-sounding vowel—what?!)

  48. Ellen K. said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    @MollyMolly. I'm confused. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that for you aunt and haunt don't rhyme, and also that each is pronounced like it's spelt. But they are spelt alike except for the initial letter.

  49. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

    British English too has both pronunciations of "either" and "neither", even indeed within the same family (mine, for example).

    It certainly isn't a British vs US thing.
    I have the impression my more obviously Scots relatives favour the "ee" versions.

    Personally I have the "eye" variant and as a consequence have always regarded this as a socially superior pronunciation.

  50. Dan T. said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

    For me, "oar" and "or" are identical, and rhyme with "war", with "awe" being a near-rhyme differing by the lack of an "r". I pronounce "ant" and "aunt" the same, but "haunt" has a different vowel (similar to that found in other dialects' pronunciation of "aunt"), and "aren't" sounds entirely different, with two syllables and the "r" and "e" distinctly pronounced. I say "merry", "marry", and "Mary" all differently, and also distinguish "three" and "tree", "pen" and "pin", and "tea" and "tay", though I don't actually have a word "tay" in my vocabulary.

  51. marie-lucie said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    @Ellen K.: I think that Mollymooly says that she pronounces the h in haunt, so it is not exactly like aunt.

  52. marie-lucie said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

    Today teachers have the Internet. They have Google and Wikipedia and Language Log. They can figure things out the moment they decide it's a potential issue

    Spoken by an academic, who is not spending all day in a classroom full of kids of varying backgrounds, abilities, attention spans, etc, and covering several different subjects every day. Figuring things out from the Internet takes a lot of time, as well as research skills and experience, because of the multiplicity sources with often contradictory information or advice: Wikipedia is widely considered unreliable if used as a single source, and who is referring teachers to Language Log rather than to any number of blogs with "language" in their title? (even assuming that LL usually deals with topics of immediate practical use to teachers).

    Teaching children and teen-agers is a very intensive job, and it is far too much to expect individual teachers to have and spend the time and energy to research every potential issue to the satisfaction of a professional in each field, and then to translate it into something useful at each classroom level. That is why there are textbooks and other guidelines issued from central authorities. Just remember the recent discussions about Strunk & White, where a lot of teachers (many of them college teachers, therefore teaching adults, in their own specialty) were grateful for any advice that would help their students, even if some of the advice was not the best.

  53. dw said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

    @Mollymooly

    I also was going to suggest a southern Irish dialect of English as the most conservative. I think I've read that some Irish speakers preserve some of the "birth-berth", "fir-fur", and "earn-urn" distinctions, even if yours doesn't.

  54. Alexandra said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

    Geoff Pullum wrote:

    "If we dismantled central government education authorities devoted to trying to tell teachers what to do, and put the saved money into (a) higher pay for teachers and (b) Internet access to permit teachers to access Language Log, it is highly probable that the value for money would be greater…"

    Hear, hear!

    I am a teacher in the US. While I agree with Marie-Lucie that teachers are overworked and research takes time, I'd still much rather do my own research than be told how to teach something by a central authority who a) does not know my students and b) may found its recommendations on politics (or any number of other silly considerations) than research.

  55. marie-lucie said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 8:05 pm

    Alexandra, I come from a family of teachers, and I didn't mean that the central authority should tell you exactly how to teach whatever, leaving you no room for your own knowledge and stifling your creativity, but that ready-made guidelines and textbooks are useful at least as a start. By all means, do your own research if you are able to, but not every teacher is in a position to do so. My post was meant to emphasize that the conditions of work of public school teachers are a far cry from those of an academic in a prestigious university, or even in a not so prestigious establishment. And some academic research into educational issues is also counter-productive.

  56. mollymooly said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 8:40 pm

    @Ellen K: you are right to be confused. In my accent, the PALM vowel is the one that can't be predicted at all from spellings. "aunt" has it, but "ant" and "haunt" don't. Many Irish people don't distinguish PALM from TRAP, but "aunt" is an irregular spelling for them too.

    Middle-class Catholics who assimilated into late Imperial Dublin were derided as "Cawstle Cawtholics", from which I guess their imitation of Received Pronunciation hypercorrected PALM and some TRAP vowels to THOUGHT.

  57. Mark F. said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 8:40 pm

    Did anybody besides me learn that rule from the old movie "A Boy Named Charlie Brown"? The movie gave the impression that the key to good spelling was knowing that rule. And it didn't add any provisos about pronunciation.

    Despite that, I found the rule useful over the years. The words where I had trouble deciding between "ie" and "ei" tended to be the ones for which the rule worked.

  58. Ray Girvan said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

    GKP: Today teachers have the Internet. They have Google and Wikipedia and Language Log.

    Indeed they do. Trouble is, it's too late. They've already been indoctrinated with the zombie rules during their own schooling and teacher training, and will instantly lock into cognitive-dissonance mode at the idea of doing any different, whatever the Web says. And of course governments are largely recruited from people who went through the kind of education that's especially good at creating prescriptivist twits, so no chance of radical diktats from that direction. Darned if I know how you break the cycle.

  59. Aaron Davies said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 5:04 am

    i find myself using both pronunciations of "either" and "neither" in free variation, occasionally in the same sentence.

  60. mollymooly said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 7:11 am

    i find myself using both pronunciations of "either" and "neither" in free variation, occasionally in the same sentence.

    I require assonance when saying "me neither" and "neither do I"

    Further to Boris and Mark F., the "i before e" is useful if you've already narrowed down the correct spelling to xxxiexxx or xxxeixxx but you're not sure which. If you're a reasonable speller, in many cases you'll know whether it's ie or ei without the rule, and shouldn't let a simple mnemonic overrule your pre-existing intuition. If you're a poor speller, the rule may well lead you astray.

  61. Nijma said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 10:22 am

    Thank you for reminding me of this spelling rule. I was at the blackboard yesterday trying to remember how to spell "niece" and decided on the spur of the moment to teach it to the class. Of course every rule has exceptions or it wouldn't be English, but the poor students trying to learn English need all the clues they can get.

  62. Sandra Wilde said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

    There was an article in the journal Elementary English, by Leonard Wheat, in 1932, stating that the i before e rule, in its full form, is one of only 4 in English regular enough to be worth teaching. Guesses on the other 3?

    My book Spelling Strategies and Patterns has a lesson on how to teach this rule through helping kids discover it.

  63. joanne salton said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 7:49 pm

    I feel fairly sure (and seem to be in agreement with some people above) that nearly everyone knows this rule as far as C, but that not too many people can go further.

  64. Aaron Davies said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 1:02 am

    @mollymooly: yes, vestigial vowel harmony is probably involved with me too.

  65. Blake Stacey said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    Today teachers have the Internet. They have Google and Wikipedia and Language Log. They can figure things out the moment they decide it's a potential issue (and if they think it isn't an issue, they won't read a government report on it, will they?).

    Supposing that a teacher has intellectual curiosity, values opinions informed by evidence and is willing to let prescription follow description instead of regurgitating the maxims handed down from previous generations as if from Sinai, then yes, Google and Wikipedia and Language Log will do fine. For those teachers that don't — and I suspect there may be a few scattered here and there — then an administrator telling them "Read this!" might be better than nothing.

  66. Irene said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 11:47 am

    @ John Cowan
    June 22, 2009 @ 4:31 am

    "I was taught a different maxim (though of course I have also learned the traditional one): "If the letter c you spy, put the e before the i." If this is likewise understood as a spelling rule for the sound /si:/, then the only exceptions in my 30,000+ word pronouncing wordlist are specie and species."

    But, I pronounce specie as spi:shi:. So, the rule could not be applied to the sound si:.

  67. david said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

    i before e except after c when the sound is ee
    if the letter c you spy, put the e before the i
    and also when the sound is ay as in neighbour or weigh
    or if the word is weird, foreign or scientific

    that should do the trick. let's see the kids remember that one.

    now for a rule for when to double the last consonant before a suffix…

  68. Jim said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

    Yet another version of the "rule" (which is more of a guide, of course), this is the one that I learned:

    i before e except after c
    or when sounded like a
    as in neighbour and weigh
    also except either,
    seizure, leisure, and neither

  69. RE said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 8:12 pm

    >the rule doesn't say anything about special treatment for scientific terms, Greek derivation, or historical or alternative pronunciations
    >
    >…or for Kieths and Shielas.
    >
    >Now I feel like Captain Carrot.

    My middle name is Keith. Amusingly, on my social security card it is spelled "Kieth". I assume this is because the SSA employee who filled in the forms adhered too closely to the rule in question….

  70. Zwicky Arnold said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

    Several points (mostly based on recent discussions on ADS-L):

    1. See Johanna Stirling's comments on her "The Spelling Blog", here.

    2. Note that the issue in these spelling guidelines arises only in choosing between IE and EI spellings. For [i:], these are both minority options (niece, seize); the major spellings for [i:] are EE (Peet's coffee), EA (peat moss), and E-consonantletter-E (Pete). (There are other minor options.) So in fact the domain of the guidelines is rather narrow to start with.

    3. Even where the two versions of the guidelines agree on their predictions, as with spellings of [i:], there are a fair number of misspellings about: theif, cheif, releif, for instance.

    4. The most common proper-name examples with [i:] (Sheila, Keith, Deirdre, Neil), which are exceptions to both versions of the guidelines, have, as it turns out, minority spellings with IE; that is, there are people who spell their names Shiela, Kieth, Dierdre, Niel.

    5. There are two common revisions of "I before E except after C" — what I'll call the A (for "American") version, with a second exception clause, "or when sounded like A", and what I'll call the B (for "British") version, which confines the rule to sequences spelling "clear ee". (I'm not claiming that the A version is found only in North America, and the B version only in the U.K., Australia, etc. — merely that it looks like these versions predominate in these places.) A number of commenters have pointed out the vexing issues that arise from these references to pronunciation, which is subject to a lot of variation and to subtleties of interpretation (Geoff Pullum says that "weird" is irrelevant for the many speakers who don't have a "clear ee" (i.e., [i:]) in this word, but have a phonetically similar vowel; how many schoolchildren will appreciate this point?).

    6. Much has been made, here and elsewhere, about the greater accuracy of the B version, greater accuracy in the sense that there are fewer exceptions for B than for A. But this is simply a consequence of the drastically constrained compass of B (which concerns only sequences spelling [i:], and says nothing at all about other occurrences of the sequences); A tries to cover a much larger domain.

    7. It then occurred to me to expand the coverage of B by treating EI as the ultimate default (elsewhere case, otherwise case, general case), with the spelling of [i:] as a special case. Call this version B':

    When the letters I and E are used together to spell a vocalic nucleus:
    (Ba) in spelling [i:],
    (Bai) use EI after C;
    (Baii) otherwise use IE;
    (Bb) otherwise (i.e., in spelling any other nucleus) use EI.

    (B' might then be more accurately described as an "E before I" rule.)

    It turns out that B' really does a pretty good job of covering the full set of facts, though the details are too intricate for discussion in a comment. However, B' (with its two levels of exception and default) is conceptually more complex than A (with one level of exception and default, but two exception clauses) and might be difficult for people to use. And in any case, the "full set of facts" is not all that big, and some of the words involved are not at all frequent.

  71. dw said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

    Cool. Some exceptions I could find via a quick browse at http://www.visca.com/regexdict/ were:

    [^C]EI represents /i:/
    * protein/codeine/caffein(e), etc.
    * leisure (for the US pronunciation)
    * seize, etc.
    * weir
    * weird

    CIE represents /i:/
    * species

    IE represents something other than /i:/
    * derivatives of words ending in -Y. E.g. allied, cried, cries, fries, spies
    * the monosyllables die, lie, pie, tie, vie and their derivatives.
    * words such as "patient", "efficient" (arguably)

  72. Sandra Wilde said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 11:27 pm

    Doubling the last consonant before a suffix:

    1. When the word ends in one vowel and one consonant and is one syllable.
    2. longer words, double if the stress is on the final syllable and you're american or always (not sure about this part) if you're British.
    3. x is an exception and never doubles, perhaps because it contains 2 consonant phonemes.
    There may be some more exceptions i'm not remembering, but this is enough for most usage.

  73. Sean Gorman said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    I was taught by a very great man: So I'd like to say "Thank you Spud."

    The issue is that most people don't think of the EXCEPTIONS to the rule… Of which there are many to the 'i' before 'e' except after 'c'.

    A much more inclusive version is
    "When the diphthong rhymes with 'key', the 'i' must come before the 'e', unless the diphthong follows 'c'"
    Wher a dipthong is two vowels that make a single sound. Thus you can wee that 'weir' and 'weird' have two distinct sounds so are therefore not controlled by this rule.
    Receive and bleieve: again these are easy to work out as they both have dipthongs that rhyme with 'key' and one has a 'c'.
    Leisure (in the UK) has a dipthong that does not ryhm with key.

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