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Language Arts

I before E



I before E except after C is a spelling rule most of us learn in elementary school. However, the I before E rule has a few exceptions. This article will help you learn or remember when it is appropriate to use I before E and when to use E before I.

“I before E” is a section of a poem that was invented as a mnemonic device to help people remember the order of vowels when spelling a word that has both an i and an e.

Sometimes people say this portion of the rhyme as a cue for the rest, and sometimes this is the only part of the rhyme they remember. To see the whole mnemonic and learn more about spelling words that have ie or ei, keep on reading.

The Original Mnemonic

Here is the entire mnemonic that many folks have learned:

 i before e

except after c

or when sounding like /ay/

as in neighbor or weigh.

Many words fit this model, in that either

1) they are spelled ie and do not either follow c or sound like /ay/

2) they are spelled ei and do follow c

3) they are spelled ei and do sound like /ay/

Examples of words that fit the model in one of the three ways follow:

I before E words

  • achieve
  • believe
  • fiend
  • grieve
  • relieve
  • retrieve

E before I after C words  

  • ceiling
  • conceit
  • conceive
  • deceive
  • inconceivable
  • perceive
  • receive

E before I, sounding like /ay/ words

  • beige
  • deign
  • eight
  • feint
  • freight
  • reign
  • sleigh
  • surveillance
  • veil
  • vein

Because believe, receive, and receipt loom large among frequently misspelled words-sometimes they make lists of the top 100-and the mnemonic helps with them, many people find the mnemonic useful.

The problem is that other words that are apt to appear on the same list-words like conscience, foreign, leisure, and weird-violate the mnemonic. So, yes, the mnemonic can help the speller having difficulties, but it can misdirect him or her at the same time.

There are two important ways that the mnemonic can fail the speller. First, it can leave the speller in the lurch because it proves to be incomplete. Second, in some cases, it fails through misdirection, suggesting a blanket rule when the fact show a more complicated orthographical reality. Let’s examine each of these types of problems.

An Incomplete Model

We said that not all cases are covered by the mnemonic. What is missing?

On the one hand, ei can spell /aye/ as in stein and /ee/ as in seize or /eh/ as in one pronunciation of leisure, and the mnemonic gives no guidance for such occurrences, leading to the assumption that, as they are not excluded, they should be spelled ie, though in fact, they are not. Here are words that fit these patterns, and several others:

EI spells /aye/, not after c

  • eider
  • either and neither  (each in one of its possible pronunciations)
  • feisty
  • height
  • kaleidoscope
  • stein
  • and names such as Bernstein, Einstein, Weinstein, etc.

EI spells /ee/, not after c

  • caffeine
  • codeine
  • either and neither (each in one of its possible pronunciations)
  • geisha
  • inveigle
  • leisure (in one of its pronunciations)
  • obeisance
  • plebeian
  • protein
  • seize

EI spells /eh/, not after c

  • heifer
  • heir

EI spells /ih/, not after c

  • foreign
  • forfeit
  • sovereign
  • surfeit

Then there are the odd examples of the words weir and weird, which are also not covered. Because these exceptions are not named by the mnemonic, people might incorrectly conclude that they are to be spelled ie.

Cases in which the Mnemonic Is Wrong

Then there are cases in which the mnemonic heads the user in the wrong direction. If the mnemonic is correct, there should be no cases of cie.  But such cases exist.

Words with cie

  • ancient
  • conscience
  • deficient
  • delicacies
  • discrepancies
  • efficiencies (2 violations of the mnemonic)
  • efficient
  • fancied
  • financier
  • glacier
  • omniscient
  • policies
  • prescient
  • proficient
  • prophecies
  • science
  • society
  • species
  • sufficient
  • tendencies
  • vacancies

In summary, if you use I after E to remember how to spell believe, receive and neighbor and stay aware of its limitations, you’ll do okay. If you try to extend it beyond the territory in which it’s useful, however, you may find yourself in orthographical hot water!

Written by Mary Elizabeth