English orthography is fake news

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Today's Non Sequitur:


  1. Jonathan D said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 6:36 pm

    When I was at school, I was taught "i before e except after c, when it makes the sound 'ee'". Not an ironclad rule, but bringing up "exceptions" such as 'weird', 'ancient' and so on alsways seems wrong to me!

  2. Theophylact said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 6:49 pm

    …"and when pronounced 'A', as in 'neighbor' and 'weigh'."

  3. Mark Meckes said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 8:02 pm

    Or as I heard it, "or when sounded as 'A", as in 'reindeer' and 'sleigh'."

  4. Ellen Kozisek said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 9:23 pm

    I like Jonathan's version. Though I think "weird" is an exception there too for some folks. Me not being one of them.

  5. Michael Watts said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 9:50 pm

    Count me as someone who thinks "weird" uses the FLEECE vowel. How are you other people pronouncing it?

  6. Viseguy said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 9:54 pm

    Compare https://www.morewords.com/contains/ei/ ("1767 words found") with https://www.morewords.com/contains/ie/ (4000+ words found. Only the first 4000 shown"). Unless you're all thumbs, it's not a bad rule of thumb.

  7. Jeff Carney said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 10:42 pm

    "Weird" in my experience rhymes with "beard." And I'm a Lovecraft fan (FWIW).

  8. Ellen Kozisek said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 11:12 pm

    @Michael Watts: Weird is pronounced (for me) with an R vowel. Not a technical term. But a vowel sound that only pairs with R's. A rounded front vowel I would say. Doesn't actually sound notably different from if I try to see "ee" followed by an R sound, but I defnitely don't think of the vowel in "weird" (and beard, and ear, etc) as the FLEECE vowel. I think it's also closer to a KIT vowel than the FLEECE vowel, actually. Not something I particularly thought about before. Yeah, maybe think of it as an R-colored KIT vowel. As best I can describe.

  9. J. Goard said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 12:33 am

    That joke, or complaint, or whatever it is, annoys the hell out of me.

    The mnemonic is so obviously meant for a very recognizable set of Latinate words (believe, retrieve, perceive, conceit, etc.), precisely because our analogical systems would otherwise have the strongest inclination to treat them the same.

    In other words, it's meant to *break a constructional default*, not establish a new logical default across the entire language.

  10. Joyce Melton said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 12:38 am

    The full versionof the mnemonic I learned was: "I before E except after C or when sounded as A as in neighbor and weigh, or certain weird words."

  11. J. Goard said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 12:45 am

    Okay, before anyone else says it, "believe" is Germanic LOL. I think it's fair to say that it looks and feels like those other words to English speakers, though.

  12. Michael Watts said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 1:12 am

    I agree that R has an effect on preceding vowels. (And, looking over the lexical sets, I see that there is one defined for weird: NEAR.) But it seems fairly clear (in my mind) that near/clear/weird/beard etc. are the FLEECE vowel with R influence, whereas it is not clear to me that the vowel of NORTH corresponds to any un-R-ed vowel.

    An R-colored KIT vowel, to me, would be the NURSE vowel ɚ, although I would say that an R-colored FOOT vowel is also the NURSE vowel.

    "Weird" and friends have strong enough R-coloring that I would be unsurprised to see someone claim there are two vowels in the word, although it is one syllable. Something similar is going on with "fire".

  13. rosie said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 1:32 am

    "Seize" is an exception. There's also a bunch including protein, caffeine and codeine, where it isn't so much that the spelling is anomalous as that smoothing of a vowel hiatus into a single [i:] has caused the words to fall into the scope of the rule.

    For me (non-rhotic southern English), "weird" is in NEAR, not FLEECE: there is no separate /i/ or /ɪ/.

    @Michael Watts NORTH/FORCE corresponds, modulo rhoticity, to THOUGHT. (Losing rhoticity causes a caught/court merger.)

  14. Michael Watts said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 3:09 am

    Ah, but for me (USA, California) THOUGHT with rhoticity is START. (And without rhoticity, THOUGHT, LOT, CLOTH, and PALM are all the same vowel.) NORTH is something completely different.

  15. Graeme said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 6:42 am

    Forget the mnemonic's virtues or otherwise. Fancy such a precocious child misconstruing 'fake news' as 'complex, contains contradictions'.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 9:07 am

    rosie: I'm one of the Americans who distinguish THOUGHT from PALM, but my THOUGHT vowel is noticeably different from my NORTH/FORCE vowel. I was taught in school that NORTH has the "long o" of GOAT, and if I had to pick a lexical set without "r" for NORTH, that's the one I'd pick. In learning to understand British accents, the hardest part for me was realizing that words I heard with an "o" sound might be spelled with an "aw".

    (I also grew up pronouncing "palm" with the THOUGHT vowel, but that's another problem.)

  17. Thorin said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 9:12 am

    Where I'm from (Michigan), some people pronounce "north" like "narth". I think I've heard people from Missouri and other parts of the Midwest pronounce it that way as well.

  18. Toma said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 9:46 am

    "The mnemonic is so obviously meant for a very recognizable set of Latinate words, precisely because our analogical systems would otherwise have the strongest inclination to treat them the same."

    Gee, if my 2nd grade teacher would have just explained it to me that way, I would have been so much better at spelling…

  19. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 10:18 am

    The weird foreigner seizes neither leisure nor sport at its height.

  20. RP said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 10:40 am

    The "rule" has so many exceptions and caveats that I wonder whether it helps anyone or does any good.

    In Jonathan D's version ("when it makes the sound 'ee'"), whether "either" and "neither" remain exceptions depends how you pronounce them. I favour the PRICE vowel, but many other people use FLEECE.

  21. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 10:47 am

    Gee, if my 2nd grade teacher would have just explained it to me that way, I would have been so much better at spelling…

    The rule wasn't meant to be taught in schools. It's not a way of learning spellings: it's a convenient mnemonic for spellings people might otherwise get wrong.

  22. J. Goard said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 10:51 am


    "Gee, if my 2nd grade teacher would have just explained it to me that way, I would have been so much better at spelling…"

    Hadn't realized I was teaching kids here on LL, but how about this:

    "You know how "believe" has an "ie", but some really similar words like "receive" have an "ei", so they're so easy to screw up?"

    [Yes, because almost everyone can immediately perceive those words as forming a group, and it's a group which doesn't include "weird" or "sheik".]

    "Well, it turns out that in those kind of words, it's "ei" only after a "c"."

  23. Toma said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 10:52 am

    I shoulda held up my sarcasm sign.

  24. Rube said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 11:40 am

    @Toma: You have a sign?

  25. Chandra said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 12:45 pm

    Fundamental English instructor here, and I just teach my students to recognize the ei in -ceive / -cei(p)t word endings rather than trying to explain all the myriad exceptions to the i-before-e rule.

  26. Guy said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 1:39 pm

    Rhotic USian here, I think of the NORTH/FORCE vowel as a rhotic diphthong, same with START (in fact, START is probably an r-colored monophthonh when I speak quickly).. It can't be analyzed into two different phonemes any more than PRICE. If I absolutely had to assign a non-r-colored vowel to NORTH/FORCE, I would pick GOAT, but the pre-offglide portion is higher and much more rounded than GOAT in most contexts (words where it is followed by /l/, like "goal" are closer to the nucleus of NORTH than it is in "goat").

  27. John Swindle said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 2:35 pm

    To me the vowel in "weird" sounds more like my merged "pin/pen" than "kit" or "fleece."

  28. Ellen K. said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 6:33 pm

    To what I posted earlier about the pronunciation of "weird", and related to this post, as far as how I think about the vowel sound there in relation to spelling, it's definitely something separate from the vowel words with the "ee" (FLEECE, /i/) vowel, as well as from words like kit/dig/if etc. (/ɪ/).

  29. AJD said,

    April 19, 2017 @ 1:40 am

    This discussion of whether weird has the same vowel as believe for the purposes of the I-before-E rule is really interesting to me, because

    1. I believe that, as a phonological question, it makes the most sense to consider the NEAR and FLEECE vowels as different phonemes, with NEAR a diphthong that glides into an r-colored offglide. But…

    2. as an orthographical question NEAR and FLEECE are the same, in that the way the NEAR vowel is spelled is virtually always just the same as the way the FLEECE vowel is spelled, plus R.

    So even though weird and believe do have different phonemes, I think that any spelling mnemonic which applies to the FLEECE vowel should be expected to apply to the NEAR vowel as well.

  30. Adrian Morgan said,

    April 19, 2017 @ 10:05 am

    I don't remember being "taught" the rule in the sense of learning it for the first time, but on the occasions I remember when it was mentioned at school, there are two things worth noting. First, that it was in the form "When the sound is ee, write i before e except after c", and second, that it was followed by a class discussion on the topic of exceptions.

    Am I wrong to assume that many people who so keenly point out the ubiquity of exceptions are channelling the memory of precisely such class discussions from their childhood?

    I was educated in rural South Australia in the eighties.

  31. J. Goard said,

    April 19, 2017 @ 11:07 am

    To beat a dead horse, this mnemonic would never have existed if not for the very strong similarity of "retrieve" and "conceive". That is the entire basis for the saying's existence. Making elaborate exceptions for "weird" and "caffeine" is as absurd as making exceptions for "righty-tighty, lefty-loosey" when talking about keyboard arrows or a car's steering wheel.

  32. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 19, 2017 @ 12:11 pm

    Dan Lufkin: The weird foreigner seizes neither leisure nor sport at its height.

    Marcie had oneiric seizures and prescient fancies.

    Words such as "fancies" and "policies" may be among the reasons American versions of the rule don't have "when it makes the sound 'ee'". We pronounce those words with the FLEECE vowel in the last syllable, whereas I believe RP has KIT there. Most of us also have FLEECE in "leisure".

    Thorin: Where I'm from (Michigan), some people pronounce "north" like "narth". I think I've heard people from Missouri and other parts of the Midwest pronounce it that way as well.

    Interesting. I've never noticed that from an American. That's why Wells made separate categories for NORTH and FORCE. It's said that Irish people also pronounce those words, or "horse" and "hoarse", differently, but that difference is too subtle for me.

  33. Marja Erwin said,

    April 19, 2017 @ 6:43 pm

    Rhotic AmE speaker.

    For me, weird has the NEAR vowel which is identical to one of the CURE vowels.

    For me, fire has the PRICE vowel in the first syllable and an unstressed vowel in the second.

  34. DS Bennett said,

    April 20, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

    Seems like there are way too many exceptions for it to even be a rule in the first place. The more words you need to describe the rule, the less it deserves to be a rule IMO.

  35. Ellen Kozisek said,

    April 20, 2017 @ 11:10 pm

    Just because there are exceptions doesn't mean the rule doesn't work. It works great for me. And the reason it works is because in those situations where it comes to my mind the rule works. Doesn't mean it works for everyone, but I'm certainly not the only one for whom it works. (In particular, it helps me with the cei words.) And the only addendum I've ever needed beyond "i before e except after c" is "weird's a weird word" (which is how I learned to spell "weird" right). It's not a description of English language spelling. And it's not a rule. It's a mnemonic that's helpful to some people. And if it's not helpful to you, don't use it.

  36. Isaac D. said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 2:07 pm

    (following the tangent in the comments away from orthography and toward phones and phonemes)
    Today I heard an analogous mnemonic/rule presented as one-of-those-things-everyone-learns-in-school (albeit new to me), which overlaps with the ones discussed above.
    I can't recall the exact wording, but it was something like "when two vowels go for a walk, the second one is silent and the first one does the talking."
    What is particularly fascinating to me is that there are so many -ei- or -ie- words where there are two distinctly different regional pronunciations, one of which follows these rules and another of which does not.
    It is enough to make me wonder whether the learning of the rules could be in some ways influencing the preference for one pronunciation over another, although I didn't have the opportunity to observe which vowel the speaker pronounced in "either/neither" or "prescient fancies."

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