It’s Just ‘I Before E’, Forget About C

It’s Just ‘I Before E’, Forget About C

We all know the rule: “I before E, except after C…” except… uh… something. Good news: You can forget everything except the “I before E” part. And even that will only help you guess correctly three times out of four.

Photo by Laura Blankenship.

Statistics student Nathan Cunningham looked for evidence to back up the rule in a list of 350,000 English words, the Washington Post reports. The “I before E” rule applied about 75 per cent of the time — but that was true whether or not a C was involved.

If you’re looking for an exception to the rule, it isn’t C, it’s W. (Need a mnemonic? Just tell yourself: That’s weird.) E comes before I about 70 per cent of the time after a W. And your chances are 50/50 after a J. But most of the time, “I before E” is the rule that gives you the best odds.


  • My native language is Spanish. We have this thing called “The Royal Academy of the Spanish Language”, an institution as ancient as you could guess by its name which regulates, standardises and continuously updates the language giving neologisms, foreignisms, and even slang an unique and official spelling (and pronunciation, given that there’s only one way of pronouncing each vowel). That made it so that “exceptions to a rule” are truly exceptional, and well, rules are actually rules.

    It was really shocking to find out that there was not such a thing for the English language and that “rules” are hardly rules at all, especially when it comes to pronunciation. It made learning super non-intuitive.

    • Such an institution could never work for English, though many have tried to standardise it. English is a a mixture of so many languages, with words and expressions even looping back on their original languages via a 3rd language, and it has so many international variations, that it would be impossible to even try to standardise it – though many have tried over the centuries.

      The influences of French, Latin, and Greek cannot be ignored, nor of course those of Danish and German, not to mention the various dialects of English in England alone.

      Shakespeare himself contributed over 1700 words to the language over 400 years ago and most, if not all, are still in common and normal use today. So, should we set the baseline for standards before he added them or after?

      Can I suggest a book by Bill Bryson called “The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way”? That will give you a really good explanation about why English is as it is. It is one of my favourite books, providing a fascinating insight into the linguistic origins of the English language. At least, it’s fascinating to me. Maybe I’m just nerdy that way.

      • I am aware of why the English language is the way it is. That’s precisely the kind of thing a Royal Academy of Language could have fixed (nowadays is definitely too late). For example, one of the things I find the most egregious is that the unintuitive and unpredictable spellings for words that sound similar are a result (among many other reasons) of different book-printers deciding on their own what the spelling of any given word would be and then those words becoming disseminated and de facto accepted as the “correct” spelling among readers thanks to the fast spread of literacy in the decades following the invention of the mobile type printer.

        The Academy would step in and say “Alright, all these borrowed French words? We are going to keep their original spelling /always/” or “We’ll always localise them following fast rules such as EAU = AW, etc.). It would have standardised the correct use of plurals for Latin words and the pronunciation of syllabic patterns and a lot of other things. It would not remove or revoke the influences of other languages or emerging words and neologisms; it’d simply make it so they are adopted in ways that allow the language to remain intuitive and cogent.

    • English does have rules, but the problems are that:

      – There are tonnes of words in common use in English that have come from other languages and been assimilated into the language with little to no regard to the actual rules. That’s why you get different plural forms of words like “fungus” (fungi), why “yacht” is pronounced “yot” and why we occasionally see accented letters in words like “résumé” (there’s no rule in English that says you can accent letters like that).
      – English is the most widespread language in the world (Mandarin is spoken by more people but they are pretty much isolated to China) and every single region that speaks English have their own unique accents that means they pronounce things differently. There’s multiple accents in England alone, and multiple accents in the USA. Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Indian, South African, West Indies/Caribbean, Irish, Scottish (there’s plenty more) – they all have their own accents and all pronounce things differently. Then you have plenty of European countries that don’t speak English as their first language but are fluent in it as a second language anyway, such as Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, France and Sweden – and once again they all have their own accents and their own way of pronouncing things.

      It makes standardising the language next to impossible.

      • Yeah, I know nowadays it is impossible. I meant that its existence /should have/ happened and it was surprising that it didn’t.

  • On the whole “i before e except after c” thing, there are actually more words that break that rule than conform to it.

  • I usually go with the 100% reliable:

    “i before e, except when it isn’t”

  • I’m always amazed that I seem to be the only English speaker that was ever taught the correct rule. It’s not “I before E, except after C”, though that does allow endless fun writing about how silly the English language is. It’s “I before E, expect after C, and when the sound is ‘ee’.”.

    Piece – yep
    Receive – yep
    Weird – yep

    Now I’m curious if some academic might apply their ample time to the correct rule and see what the statistics are. Why so much academic work is dedicated to proving that which we already know is beyond me.

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