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"I before E, except after C" is a mnemonicrule of thumb for English spelling. If one is unsure whether a word is spelled with the sequence ei or ie, the rhyme suggests that the correct order is ie unless the preceding letter is c, in which case it is ei. For example:
ie in believe, fierce, collie, die, friend
ei after c in receive, ceiling, receipt, ceilidh
The rule is very well known; Edward Carney calls it "this supreme, and for many people solitary, spelling rule".
This rule applies to the "?" (long e) sound as it is demonstrated in all the aforementioned examples.
However, the short form quoted above has some common exceptions; for example:
ie after c: species, '
ei not preceded by c: caffeine
The proportion of exceptions can be reduced by restricting application of the rule based on the sound represented by the spelling. Two common restrictions are:
excluding cases where the spelling represents the "long a"[n 1] sound (the lexical sets of FACE and perhaps SQUARE ). This is commonly expressed by continuing the rhyme "or when sounding like A, as in neighbor or weigh"
including only cases where the spelling represents the "long e"[n 1] sound (the lexical sets of FLEECE and perhaps NEAR and happY ).
Some authorities deprecate the rule as having too many exceptions to be worth learning.
History of the spellings
The Middle English language evolved from Old English after the Norman conquest, adding many loanwords from Norman French, whose sounds and spellings changed and were changed by the older English customs. In French loanwords, the digraph <ie> generally represented the sound [e:], while <ei> represented [?:]. However, Early Modern English spelling was not fixed; many words were spelled with <ie> and <ei> interchangeably, in printed works of the seventeenth century and private correspondence of educated people into the nineteenth century. In the Great Vowel Shift, sounds [e:] and [?:] were raised to [i:] and [e:] respectively, with the latter subsequently becoming the diphthong[e?]. Exceptionally, words in and their derivatives evolved from [e:] to [i:] rather than [e?].
History of the mnemonic
The mnemonic (in its short form) is found as early as 1866, as a footnote in Manual of English Spelling, edited by schools inspector James Stuart Laurie from the work of a Tavistock schoolmaster named Marshall.Michael Quinion surmises the rhyme was already established before this date. An 1834 manual states a similar rule in prose; others in 1855 and 1862 use different rhymes. Many textbooks from the 1870s on use the same rhyme as Laurie's book.
The restriction to the "long e" sound is explicitly made in the 1855 and 1862 books, and applied to the "I before E except after C" rhyme in an 1871 manual. Mark Wainwright's FAQ posting on the alt.usage.English newsgroup characterises this restricted version as British. The restriction may be implicit, or may be explicitly included as an extra line such as "when the sound is e" placed before or after the main part of the rhyme.
A longer form excluding the "long a" sound is found in Rule 37 of Ebenezer Cobham Brewer's 1880 Rules for English Spelling, along with a list of the "chief exceptions":
The following rhymes contain the substance of the last three rules : --
i before e,
Except after c,
Or when sounded as "a,"
As in neighbour and weigh.
"Dr Brewer" is credited as the author by subsequent writers quoting this form of the rhyme, which became common in American schools.
A Dictionary of Modern English Usage discusses "i before e except after c". Henry Watson Fowler's original 1926 edition called the rule "very useful", restricting it to words with the "long e" sound, stating further that "words in which that sound is not invariable, as either, neither, inveigle, do not come under it", and calling seize "an important exception". The entry was retained in Ernest Gowers's 1965 revision.Robert Burchfield rewrote it for the 1996 edition, stating 'the rule can helpfully be extended "except when the word is pronounced with /e?/"', and giving a longer list of exceptions, including words excluded from Fowler's interpretation.Robert Allen's 2008 pocket edition states, "The traditional spelling rule ' i before e except after c ' should be extended to include the statement 'when the combination is pronounced -ee- '". Jeremy Butterfield's 2015 edition suggests both "when ... pronounced -ee-" and "except when ... pronounced -ay-" as extensions to the rhyme, as well as listing various classes of exception.
In 1932 Leonard B. Wheat examined the rules and word lists found in various American elementary school spelling books. He calculated that, of the 3,876 words listed, 128 had ei or ie in the spelling; of these, 83 conformed to I-before-E, 6 to except-after-C, and 12 to sounded-like-A. He found 14 words with i-e in separate syllables, and 2 with e-i in separate syllables. This left 11 "irregular" words: 3 with cie (ancient, conscience, efficiency) and 8 with ei (either, foreign, foreigner, height, leisure, neither, seize, their). Wheat concluded, "If it were not for the fact that the jingle of the rule makes it easy to remember (although not necessarily easy to apply), the writer would recommend that the rule be reduced to 'I usually comes before e,' or that it be discarded entirely".
Sandra Wilde in 1990 claimed the sounded-like-E version of the rule was one of only two sound-letter correspondence rules worth teaching in elementary schools. The rule was covered by five of nine software programs for spelling education studied by Barbara Mullock in 2012.
Edward Carney's 1994 Survey of English Spelling describes the ["long-e" version of the] rule as "peculiar":
Its practical use is ... simply deciding between two correspondences for /i:/ that are a visual metathesis of each other. It is not a general graphotactic rule applicable to other phonemes. So, although seize and heinous (if you pronounce it with /i:/ rather than /e?/) are exceptions, heifer, leisure with /e/?<ei> or rein, vein with /e?/?<ei> are not exceptions; <ie> is not a usual spelling of /e/ or /e?/.
Such rules are warnings against common pitfalls for the unwary. Nevertheless, selection among competing correspondences has never been, and could never be, covered by such aids to memory.
The converse of the "except after c" part is Carney's spelling-to-sound rule E.16: in the sequence <cei>, the <ei> is pronounced /i:/. In Carney's test wordlist, all eight words with <cei> conform to this rule, which he thus describes as being a "marginal" rule with an "efficiency" of 100%. Rarer loanwords not in the wordlist may not conform; e.g. the Gaelic word ceilidh is pronounced /ke?li:/.
Mark Wainwright's FAQ posting interprets the rule as applying only to the FLEECE vowel, not the NEAR vowel; he regards it as useful if "a little common sense" is used for the exceptions. The FAQ includes a 1996 response to Wainwright by an American, listing variations on the rule and their exceptions, contending that even the restricted version has too many exceptions, and concluding "Instead of trying to defend the 'rule' or 'guideline', "'i' before 'e' except after 'c'", why don't we all just agree that it is dumb and useless, and be content just to laugh at it?"
Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster has said the neighbor-and-weigh version is "chocked with tons of exceptions", listing several types. On Language Log in 2006, Mark Liberman suggested that the alternative "i before e, no matter what" was more reliable than the basic rule. On the same blog in 2009, Geoff Pullum wrote, 'The rule is always taught, by anyone who knows what they are doing, as "i before e except after c when the sound is 'ee'."'
Children investigate the rule i before e except after c. Does this always apply? What sound does ie make in these words?
In the Appendix, after a list of nine "useful spelling guidelines", there is a note:
The i before e except after c rule is not worth teaching. It applies only to words in which the ie or ei stands for a clear /ee/ sound and unless this is known, words such as sufficient, veil and their look like exceptions. There are so few words where the ei spelling for the /ee/ sound follows the letter c that it is easier to learn the specific words: receive, conceive, deceive (+ the related words receipt, conceit, deceit), perceive and ceiling.
There were widespread media reports of this recommendation, which generated some controversy. 
The Oxford Dictionaries website of Oxford University Press states "The rule only applies when the sound represented is 'ee', though. It doesn't apply to words like science or efficient, in which the -ie- combination does follow the letter c but isn't pronounced 'ee'."
David Crystal discusses the rule in his 2012 history of English spelling. He first restricts it to the vowel, then accounts for several classes of exception. He states that, while the exceptions are fewer and rarer than the words that follow the rule, there are too many to learn by heart; the factors are "too great to reduce to a simple rule", but "a basic knowledge of grammar and word-history" can handle them.
The following sections list exceptions to the basic form; many are not exceptions to the augmented forms.
Some large groups of words have cie in the spelling. Few common words have the cei spelling handled by the rule: verbs ending -ceive and their derivatives (perceive, deceit, transceiver, receipts, etc.), and ceiling. The BBC trivia show QI claimed there were 923 words spelled cie, 21 times the number of words which conform to the rule's stated exception by being written with cei. These figures were generated by a QI fan from a Scrabble wordlist. The statistic was repeated by UberFacts.
With the "long e" vowel
The vowel represented by ie in words spelled cie is rarely the "long e" vowel of FLEECE (/i:/), so few words are exceptions to the version of the rule restricted to that sound. Among them are specie, species.
For those with happy-tensing accents, the final y in words ending -cy has the FLEECE vowel, and therefore so do inflected forms ending -cies or -cied (fancied, policies, etc.).
If the vowel of NEAR (/r/) is considered as "long e", then words ending -cier may also be exceptions. Possible examples include: fancier, if pronounced with two rather than three syllables; or financier, if stressed on the final syllable or pronounced with a happy-tensing accent.
With other sounds
These are exceptions to the basic and "long a" versions of the rhyme, but not to the "long e" version.
Adding suffix -er to root in -cy, giving a two-syllable ending -cier; For example, fancier (adjective "more fancy", or noun "one who fancies")
Words of Latin origin with a root ending in c(i) followed by a suffix or inflexion starting in (i)e; such as
fac or fic "do; make" (efficient, stupefacient, etc.)
Many words have ei not preceded by c. In the sections which follow, most derived forms are omitted; for example, as well as seize, there exist disseize and seizure. Words are grouped by the phonemes (sounds) corresponding to ei or ie in the spelling; each phoneme is represented phonetically as at Help:IPA/English and, where applicable, by the keyword in John C. Wells' lexical sets.
An asterisk* after a word indicates the pronunciation implied is one of several found. Some have an /i:/ variant more common in America than Britain (e.g. sheikh, leisure, either have /e?/, /?/, /a?/ respectively).
With the "long e" vowel
Words where ei, not preceded by c, represents the vowel of FLEECE (/i:/), are the only exceptions to the strictest British interpretation of the "long e" version of the rhyme. Less strict interpretations admit as exceptions those words where eir, not preceded by c, represents the vowel of NEAR (/r/).
Some categories of exception:
Many proper names, often because they are adopted from other languages. Fowler says the rule "is useless with proper names"; Carney says "As one might expect of any rule, there are likely to be even more exceptions in names, many of which are Scottish":
forenames and surnames Keith, Neil, Sheila, Stein, etc.
madeira, weir, weird. (This sound may also be spelled ier, as in pierce.)
With the "long a" vowel
There are many words where ei, not preceded by c, represents the vowel of FACE (/e?/). There are a few where eir, not preceded by c, represents the vowel of SQUARE (/r/). These groups of words are exceptions only to the basic form of the rhyme; they are excluded from both of the common restricted forms.
Others: abseil, beige, capoeira, cleidoic, deign, dreidel, feign, feint, geisha, glei, greige, greisen, heinous*, inveigle*, nonpareil*, obeisance*, peignoir*, reign, rein, seiche, seidel, seine, sheikh*, skein, surveillance, veil, vein. (While Carney says this sound is never spelled ie, the last vowel in lingerie* is often the FACE vowel.).
heir, their. (This sound is never spelled ier)
With other sounds
These are exceptions to the basic and "long a" versions of the rhyme, but not to the "long e" version.
German origin: einsteinium, gneiss, leitmotiv, Rottweiler, stein, zeitgeist.
Others: eider, either*, feisty, heigh-ho*, height, heist, kaleidoscope, neither*, seismic, sleight (This sound may also be spelled ie, but only at the end of a morpheme as in die, pies, cried.)
^ abLiberman, Mark (18 November 2006). "Mrs. Olsen gets a D". Language Log. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 2011.
^ ab"Support for Spelling"(PDF). The National Strategies: Primary Framework: Literacy Framework. Department for Education. February 2010. Archived from the original(PDF) on 22 February 2011. Retrieved 2011.
^Laurie, James Stuart (1866). Manual of English spelling. London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co. p. 59. OCLC266992241. Retrieved 2013.
Laurie's book erroneously lists conscience, seine, seize, and seizure under "ei" rather than under "exceptions".
^Michôd, John (1855). "Vowels: Rule 5". Orthographic aids; or, Mnemonics for spelling and exercises in derivation. London: Longman. p. 9. Retrieved 2011. The Diphthong ei when it sounds like long e, Most frequently follows the consonant c; Reverse it, and then if it still sound the same, It follows a consonant notc by name, Except in such words as--counterfeit, seizure, Plebeian and Proper Names such as Madeira.
^Mongan, James Roscoe (1862). The practical spelling book (2nd ed.). London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co. pp. 13, fn. Retrieved 2011. Unless preceded by a c, / The i is placed before the e.
^Butterfield, Jeremy (March 2015). Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 390-391. ISBN978-0-19-966135-0.
^ abMullock, Barbara (2012). "An Examination of Commercial Spelling Programs for Upper Primary Level students". Australasian Journal of Special Education. 36 (2): 172-195. doi:10.1017/jse.2012.14. ISSN1030-0112.