“i” Before “e” Except After “c” is Not a Rule

by | Feb 5, 2018


I am often befuddled by whether to use an “ie” or an “ei”. Having gone to public school my entire educational career (except for a failed freshman year at TCU) I have blamed my confusion on our nation’s public educational system.

I recently had to rethink my worldview when I learned that the “ie” vs “ei” is just really hard and there is no good singular rule. Nathan Cunningham, a statistician at the University of Warwick, performed an analysis of a database of 350,000 English words and whether words followed the “i before e except after c” rule.  Here’s what he found:

Where an “i” and “e” are paired, “ie” occurs 3 times as often as “ei”. So, if you are going to guess, the odds are with “ie”.


Whether a “c” comes before an “i” and an “e” is pretty much irrelevant in deciding whether it should be “ei” or “ie” as 75% of the time, an “ie” pair follows a “c” and the supposed rule of “ei” following a “c” occurs 25% of the time.


As noted by Christopher Ingraham in the Washington Post: for every “ceiling” there’s a “concierge,” a “conscience” and some “celibacies.” For every “deceit,” there are “deficiencies,” “delicacies” and a “dicier.” The iciest glaciers make idiocies out of the conceit of “except after c.”

So, “i before e except after c” is not only not a universal rule, it doesn’t help at all!

So, if “i” before “e” except after “c” doesn’t help, is there another saying that would help? Merriam-Webster suggests a jingle like this:

I before e, except after c
Or when sounded as ‘a’ as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’
Unless the ‘c’ is part of a ‘sh’ sound as in ‘glacier’
Or it appears in comparatives and superlatives like ‘fancier’
And also except when the vowels are sounded as ‘e’ as in ‘seize’
Or ‘i’ as in ‘height’
Or also in ‘-ing’ inflections ending in ‘-e’ as in ‘cueing’
Or in compound words as in ‘albeit’
Or occasionally in technical words with strong etymological links to their parent languages as in ‘cuneiform’
Or in other numerous and random exceptions such as ‘science’, ‘forfeit’, and ‘weird’. 

1 Comment

  1. I knew there was a sound foundation for my inability to spell. It seems to me a lot of engineers seem to have a problem correctly spelling enjenear. The obvious reason as explained above is there is not formula for it.

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