I before E

It’s a rule with a number of “deficiencies.”

For whatever reason, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. First of all, someone I love very much (okay, it was my mom!) sent me this clever poem:

“I” Before “E” Except After “C”
by Duncan McKenzie

It’s a rule that is simple, concise and efficeint.
For all speceis of spelling it’s more than sufficeint.
Against words wild and wierd, it’s one law that shines bright
Blazing out like a beacon upon a great hieght,

It gives guidance impartial, sceintific and fair
In this language, this tongue to which we are all hier.
‘Gainst the glaceirs of ignorance that icily frown,
This great precept gives warmth, like a thick iederdown.

Now, a few in soceity choose to deride,
To cast DOUBT on this anceint and venerable guide;
They unwittingly follow a foriegn agenda,
A plot hatched, I am sure, in some vile haceinda.

In our work and our liesure, our homes and our schools,
Let us follow our consceince, sieze proudly our rules!
Will I dilute my standards, make them vaguer and blither?
I say NO, I will not! I trust you will not iether.

then, I was watching my favorite wacky British panel/quiz show, and saw this clip:

Which points out, amidst a lot of general buffoonery, that the rule is so often violated that the British government actually recommended that teachers stop teaching it in 2009. How funny.

And then, for completeness, I feel I should offer a link to this blog post, which does a quasi-mathematical analysis of words in English that follow or violate the rule, and finds that 25% of all words that contain an “ie” or “ei” pair violate the rule, and in fact 66% of the words in which “i” and “e” appear after a “c” they appear in the order “ie,” again in violation of the rule. Meaning in a certain sense that if you are given a random English word and told to spell it, you’re better off guessing “cie” than “cei,” if the issue comes up.

Of course, this analysis completely dodges the salient (see, that word follows the rule!) point, which is whether or not the words we use most commonly tend to follow the rule, because if they do, it is still a useful tool, exceptions be damned.

Which brings me to the purpose of my blog post: here and here are fairly complete lists of words containing “ie” and “ei.” I don’t have the patience to sort them into “common” and “uncommon” categories, but if you took the time to read this far, you must have a lot of time to kill…

UPDATE: if anyone is really curious, here and here are much shorter lists of “cie” versus “cei.” To my eye, the first list (the list of exceptions) is not exactly full of the arcane scrabble-players-only kind of words I expected. Most of the trouble comes form words ending in “cies” (like “fallacies”) or “science” (like conscience, prescience, etc.)


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

One Response to I before E

  1. Kristi says:

    HA! Love that poem! I was actually think of that rule JUST today, because it always messes me up whenI try to spell cheif…chief….ARRGGGGGGHHHH

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