"I" before "E" except after "C"

 

It’s Hallowe’en. Who cares about spelling? I do. (I care about punctuation, too, which is why I’ve put an apostrophe in my Hallowe’en to show where the ‘v’ is missing.) I’ve just written a book called Have You Eaten Grandma? It’s about spelling and punctuation and the pleasures and pitfalls involved in writing and speaking our utterly amazing and ever-evolving language.

‘I’ BEFORE ‘E’ EXCEPT AFTER ‘C’ is the most famous of all the spelling rules – and the most frustrating.  For a start, people get the rule all wrong.

It’s ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ – except

when your foreign neighbour Keith receives

eight counterfeit beige sleighs

from feisty caffeinated weightlifters!

The point is: the rule is not ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’.  The rule is:

It’s ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’

if the vowel sound rhymes with bee’

That mostly works – e.g.

achieve

believe

brief

chief

deceive

fiend

receipt

receive

But it doesn’t always – e.g.

caffeine

plebeian

protein

seize

species

 

And nowadays, when regional accents are held in the highest regard, it’s not always possible to agree on what does or doesn’t rhyme with ‘bee’.  How do you pronounce ‘forfeit’, ‘counterfeit’, ‘surfeit’?  Is it with a long ‘ee’ as in ‘bee’ or a short one as in ‘bit’?  And is your ‘sheikh’ as in ‘chic’ (which does rhyme with ‘bee’) or as in ‘shake’ (which doesn’t)?  Some say ‘heinous’ as in ‘penis’, others say ‘heinous’ as in ‘anus’.  Is it ‘neither’ pronounced ‘neether’ and is ‘either’ ‘eether’?  Exactly.  Let’s call the whole thing off.

         This rule is fraught with pitfalls and exceptions.  Yes, most words where the vowel sound doesn’t rhyme with ‘bee’ are spelt with an ‘ei’ – e.g.

deign

eider

feint

heir

reign

vein

weigh

 But if you try to rely on the rule, you will find it a false friend.  Yup, ‘friend’ is a fiend when it comes to the spelling rulebook.  It does not rhyme with ‘bee’, but it requires an ‘ie’.  Weird or what?

If you want to know ‘the rules’ when it comes to spelling and punctuation, or you simply want to have fun with words, do get hold of a copy of Have You Eaten Grandma? It’s a handsome-looking book, 300 pages with glorious end-papers. (I love end-papers!) You should be able to get hold of a copy at your local bookshop, or your local library - or you could even try here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Have-Eaten-Grandma-Gyles-Brandreth/dp/0241352630/

Gyles Brandreth