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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

How Is "I before E except after C" a Rule?

ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

English spelling is hard. It's hard for kids to learn it, and it's hard for adults who have already learned it to remember how to do it right. It would be nice to have some consistent, general rules to go by, but alas, there are few. Maybe none. Even the one general rule that most people remember from school is not a very good rule at all: I before E except after C—but not in "eight," or "protein," or "efficient," or "glacier," or "Einstein," or, or, or…

There are violations of this rule everywhere you turn. The Wikipedia article on the rule even lists out words that violate both parts of the rule simultaneously: cheiromancies, cleidomancies, eigenfrequencies, obeisancies, oneiromancies. Of course, those are not words we use very often, and a rule of thumb shouldn't be obliged to deal with them. But the rule also fails for a number of very common words, such as "their," "height," and "science." In fact, when Mark Liberman at Language Log ran the numbers on a large sample of newspaper text to see how well the rule accounted for the facts, he found that the rule "I before E no matter what" actually did a slightly better job, even though that rule is obviously not true.

The rule does get better with extra qualifications. You may have learned it as follows:

I before E except after C,
Or when sounded as "a"
As in "neighbor" or "weigh."

If so, then you will have accounted for a range of exceptions. Still, you'll be out of luck on "weird" and "ancient." And if you learned it as follows:

I before E except after C,
When the sound is "ee"

you will have dealt with exceptions like "their," "heir," and "sleigh," but not "species" or "seize."

If you continue with qualifications you can get closer to a useful rule—don't apply it to names or foreign borrowings; don't apply it to plurals of words ending in –cy; don't apply it to words from the Latin root "sci" (conscience, prescient, omniscient); only apply the "after C" part to words from the Latin root "cept" (receive, deceive, conceive). But the more qualifications you add, the less catchy and memorable the rule becomes.

If we lose catchy memorability, we lose the reason for the rule's existence in the first place. Back in the 1800s, textbooks were the new thing in education. They allowed people to learn without direct access to an expert. Textbook writers created systems of explanation, along with drills and exercises, that could be used by the independent scholar at home or a teacher in a remote, one-room schoolhouse. There were attempts to tackle the vagaries of English spelling in systematic ways, but the vagaries turned out to be so vague, the systems strained at the seams. Here, from an 1855 spelling textbook, is a rhyme that didn't survive:

At the end of a word if you find silent e,
Then throw it away, -- for there it can't be
When an affix you add with a vowel commencing;
Thus "rogue" will make "roguish," and "fence" will make "fencing";
But if able or ous follow soft c or g,
Then, "change" you make "changeable", keeping the e.

It may be accurate, but catchy and memorable it ain't.

I before E, on the other hand, is pithy, perfect for chanting, and probably about as general a rule of English spelling as it is possible to get in such a short space. It's like an advertising jingle that gets stuck in your head, and like all advertising it offers a view of the world that's a bit cleaner and shinier than the one we live in.

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Can You Guess the Secret Word in This Brain Teaser?
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On his YouTube channel Mind Your Decisions, Presh Talwalkar shares logic puzzles dealing with geometry, statistics, and algebra. The puzzle below from the former Stanford math and economics student features no numbers, but that doesn’t mean it's easy to figure out.

To solve the brain teaser, you need to guess the secret word based on a few clues. Here’s the set-up: A teacher is leading a class and Albert, Bernard, and Cheryl are his students. He writes the words "cat," "dog," "has," "max," "dim," and "tag" on the board. He distributes one sheet of paper to each of his three students, with each piece containing a different letter from one of the words. He then tells them that together their letters spell one of the words on the board. The students only know their letter, they don’t know anyone else's.

The teacher asks Albert if he knows the secret word. Albert says yes, he does know it. Next, the teacher asks Bernard. After some hesitation, he replies that yes, he knows the secret word as well. Finally, the teacher asks Cheryl if she knows what the word is. She thinks for a moment and says that yes she does. Albert, Bernard, and Cheryl have successfully guessed the secret word. Do you know what it is based on their answers?

Figuring out the word without knowing any of its letters may seem difficult, but it’s not impossible. If you don’t know where to start, think about Albert’s answer and use the process of elimination to rule out some of the letters and words written on the board. Keep in mind that Bernard could only come to his conclusion from Albert’s answer, and Cheryl from Bernard’s.

Still lost? If you haven’t gotten to the bottom of it yet, the correct answer is "dog." When Albert answers that he knows what the right word is based on one letter, you can use that information to narrow down his possible letters to one of the six that are never repeated on the board: c, o, h, s, x, and i. And when Bernard says that he knows too, you can deduce that his list of potential letters is limited to t, g, h, or s. That leaves "cat," "dog," and "has" as the three remaining options. Cheryl’s answer confirms that she has the letter d, which means the secret word is "dog."

If you’re looking for a more detailed walkthrough of the puzzle-solving process, check out the video from Presh Talwalkar below.

[h/t Mind Your Decisions]

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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