Stop Dissing the “I Before E” Spelling Mnemonic, Please

Sign outside bookstore misrepresenting the I before E spelling rule
A typical criticism of the I before E spelling rule that ignores the entire rule. The words with red slash marks do, in fact, follow the rule: neighbor, receives, eight, beige, sleighs, weightlifters.

You have seen them—poems and Facebook memes declaring that the “I before E rule” is useless, and listing words spelled with ei.

One problem with these memes is that their creators have not learned the whole “I before E” rule.

Here’s the rule:

I before E except after c,

and when sounded like /A/

as in neighbor and weigh.

The rhyme covers three possible spellings with ie and ei.


What the “I before E” rule actually says

FIRST RULE: In most words in which the letters i and e combine to represent a single sound, the i comes before the e: thief, friend, retrieve, mischief, diesel, belief, grief, yield quiet, view, die, pie,

SECOND RULE: When the letter c precedes the letters i and e, then the e comes before the i: deceit, ceiling, receipt, conceit, perceive, conceive.

THIRD RULE: When the letter-combination is pronounced like /A/, then the e comes before the i: beige, eight, freight, sleigh, weight.

Exceptions to the rule

No spelling rule can apply to every possible word. However, because a rule has exceptions does not make it useless.

The English sound code must accommodate the spelling of thousands of words that have come from nearly every language on earth. Some of the words conform to English spelling conventions. Others have brought foreign conventions into the language with them.

Perhaps the people who ridicule what are called “English spelling rules” object to the word “rule.” Perhaps they feel that a “rule” should not have “exceptions.” If that’s the case, perhaps a different term would help.

Learning anchors or hooks

What we call “spelling rules” provide mental hooks or anchors around which information can accumulate.

Without having learned the “I before E” rhyme (the entire rhyme), a beginning speller who knows how to pronounce the words receive, neighbor, weird, eight, and foreign can only conclude that English spelling makes no sense.

BUT, knowing the rhyme provides context. Exceptions to the rule stand out. The few exceptions become familiar and the spelling is internalized.

A note about the third rule of “I before e”

The only word in my third list that is actually spelled with the ei phonogram is beige. The others are spelled with the phonogram eigh.

Phonogram: a letter or combination of letters that represent one speech sound.

Think of the phonogram eigh as “four-letter A.” This spelling almost always represents the long A sound. The only common exceptions are height and heigh-ho, in which eigh represents long I.

2 Responses

  1. Keith,
    You’ve nailed it. Spelling rules do not apply to proper names.

    I learned this lesson years ago when I was a young teacher. I had a student who wrote his name on a paper—and I corrected his spelling! I corrected it to Michael, but his parent had written Micheal on his birth certificate. Micheal it was.

    The name Keith, which you probably know is Gaelic in origin, can also be spelled Kieth, Keath, and Ceiteach.

    The exceptions to the “I before E rule,” which is so often unfairly ridiculed, are owing to changes in pronunciation, associations with other spellings, and foreign spellings adopted into English along with the new word. I have seen long lists of words that supposedly “break the rule,” but

    1. many of the words in the lists, like science, do not in fact break it. The ie in conceit, for example, represents a single sound. In science the letters i and e represent two separate sounds.

    2. students can reasonably be expected to learn the few common words that defy the rule.

    People who are too intellectually lazy to learn the most common exceptions have the option of using a spell-checking app.

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