“I” before “e” except after “c” ... or maybe not

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Posted on 
May 16, 2022

It's no secret that English is a difficult language when it comes to spelling. If you grew up attending an English elementary school in Canada, you’ve probably heard a bunch of sayings and rhymes intended to help you learn various spelling conventions. Here are a few fun sayings:

When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking
Drop the “y,” replace with “i,” and add “es”
“Q” and “u” are the best of friends

The first example helps with figuring out the pronunciation of a word; the second is used all the time to make words that end in “y” plural; and the third is almost a hard-and-fast rule.

The rule that puzzled me for years: “i” before “e” except after “c”

This saying tells us that while “ie” is the usual order for this letter pairing, when the letters “i” and “e” appear after a “c” in a word, they should be inverted to “ei.” When I was in school, the puzzling part was encountering all the words that don’t follow this rule! How many times have you come across a word that’s spelled with a “c,” an “i,” and an “e,” and not known the order in which the vowels are supposed to be written?

The table below displays some words where the rule is applied, as well as some examples of words where the inversion doesn’t occur after the letter “c.”

Words spelled “cei” and “cie”
“i” before “e” except after “c” “i” before “e” after “c”
  • ceiling
  • conceit
  • imperceivably
  • receipt
  • receive
  • ancient
  • conscience
  • deficiency
  • efficient
  • glacier
  • science
  • society

When the sound is pronounced “see”

If you say each word aloud, you’ll notice that in the first column, all the words with the “cei” spelling are pronounced like the verb “see.” As you say each word in the second column, you’ll notice that “cie” isn’t always pronounced the same way.

Maybe pronunciation is part of the rule, and we just forget to tack it onto the saying. Lexico agrees that when the sound is pronounced like a double “e,” the rule does apply.Note 1 The online version of Merriam-Webster has an article with additional sayings that explain more of the exceptions to the “‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’” rhyme, but it doesn’t cover all of the possibilities.Note 2 There are too many exceptions!

Evidence in numbers

Out of curiosity, I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary's advanced search function to find some numerical information for comparison. First, I used the search command “*cei*” to determine how many words follow the saying and use a “cei” spelling. This search produced 191 results. Then, I used the search command “*cie* NOT *cies*”Note 3 to determine how many words don’t follow the saying, but instead use a “cie” spelling. This search produced 300 results!

As you can see in the comparison of these figures, there are more words in the Oxford English Dictionary that use an “i” before “e” after “c” spelling than what the catchy saying seems to suggest. Perhaps it would be easier to learn the order of “i’s,” “e’s,” and “c’s” without the not-so-accurate rule.

If you’re interested in learning about misconceptions that go beyond spelling, check out this article on grammar myths (opens in new tab)! And for a little bit of history on the quirks of English spelling, here’s a blog post called “Why Canadian spelling is different.” (opens in new tab)

Were you taught any other sayings to help with spelling or grammar that have lots of exceptions? Leave a comment below!

Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

About the author

Bethany Brown

Bethany Brown

Bethany Brown is a fourth-year translation student at the University of Ottawa. She has always had a love for grammar, words and writing. She aspires to learn all there is to know about English grammar and the rhymes and sayings for remembering those rules!

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