ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
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.

Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

Fox Photos/Getty Images
The Early 20th Century Society That Tried to Make English Spelling More Intuitive
George Bernard Shaw, a member of the Simplified Spelling Soesiety
George Bernard Shaw, a member of the Simplified Spelling Soesiety
Fox Photos/Getty Images

The English language is notorious for complex spelling rules—and the many words that break them. We all know i comes before e, except, of course, in certain weird words like, well, weird. We pronounce the letter i like eye if the word ends in an e—except in words like give. Unsurprisingly, even native English speakers get fed up with the inanity of the language’s complicated spelling conventions, and there have been several pushes to replace them with something a little more intuitive over the centuries, as The Public Domain Review highlights.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the London-based Simplified Speling Soesiety was one of the groups pushing for a more logical system of English spelling. Its journal, first published in 1912, refers to standard English spelling as "in sum waiz unreezonabl and retrograid.” So the group went about coming up with new ways to spell common words itself, hoping its alternate approach would catch on.

The Pioneer ov Simplified Speling contained a pronunciation guide, but many of its alternative spellings can be deciphered fairly easily. As long as you peruse carefully, that is. Reading through the publication feels like stumbling through an archaic text from hundreds of years ago, rather than something written during the 20th century.

A pronunciation guide from the 'Pioneer of Simplified Speling'
The Pioneer of Simplified Speling

Go ahead and wade into how the group, founded in 1908, explained its mission in the first edition of The Pioneer:

The aim ov the Soesiety nou iz tu plais befor the public cleer staitments ov the cais against the curent speling, tu sho hou seerius ar the consecwensez ov yuezing it, and hou much wood be gaind, if sum such sceem az that ov the Soesiety wer adopted.

Did you get all that?

The debut edition of the quirky journal, which you can read on the Internet Archive, includes not just the group’s mission statement and goals, but birthday congratulations to the Society’s founding president, aggregated updates about spelling in the news (like that in an interview, British chemist Sir William Ramsay mentioned a German child never making a spelling mistake), the announcement of the group’s annual meeting (at which members would submit new simplified spellings for discussion), and other minor spelling-related notes.

The whole thing is truly a treasure.

Fed-up readers and writers have been trying to wrangle English spelling conventions into something more manageable for essentially as long as there have been standardized spellings. Benjamin Franklin was a spelling reformer during his lifetime, as was Theodore Roosevelt. Soesiety member George Bernard Shaw went so far as to leave his estate in a trust dedicated to reforming the English alphabet when he died.

Though the spelling reformers of yore didn't find much mainstream acceptance for their ideas, there are still modern orthography obsessives who want to revamp the English spelling system to make it easier to learn. And they have a point: For English-speaking children, learning to read and write takes years longer than it does for kids learning to read in languages with easier spelling rules, like Finnish. Considering that one study of 7000 different English words found that 60 percent of them had irregularly used letters, it’s a wonder any of us English speakers have learned to read at all. If only the Simplified Speling Soesiety had gotten its way back in the early 1900s, maybe we would have an easier time of it.

[h/t The Public Domain Review]


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