Exceptions to the rule 'I before E except after C'

by Bob Cunningham

The AUE FAQ has an article on the i-before-e rule that attempts to show that the rule is a good and useful one, and that the objections to it may be swept aside. That article was written by an Englishman, the highly respected Mark Wainwright. This page presents an alternative view, written by an American. The 'i before e' rule is usually defined quite differently in the two communities.

Below is an excerpt, with minor editing, from an article posted to AUE Tue, 27 Feb 1996 22:42:07 GMT. It was posted in response to a posting by a Ms Tomlinson.

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Excerpt, with minor editing, from the 1996 posting:

There was a robust thread on this topic about a year ago. I also participated in an extended discussion of it in the ILink WordPlay Conference a couple of years ago. Both discussions went the same way. People kept piling on more and more qualifications to the rule until it seemed as though the rule might eventually become longer than the list of words that obeyed it.

Extensions to the rule that have been suggested:

Early in both discussions I submitted a list of words that were exceptions to the rule. People then took exception to some of the words in my list, citing extensions to the rule that excluded them. Some of the extensions were:

  • The rule only applies to digraphs, so words like "deity" and "science" don't count.
  • The rule "i before e except after c" should be extended to include "except when said 'ay' as in 'neighbor' and 'weigh'".
  • The rule only applies to digraphs that have the /i:/ ('ee') pronunciation, as in 'piece'. (Note the conflict between this and the previous item.)
  • The rule doesn't apply to words that are recent imports from foreign languages, such as "gneiss", "dreidel", and "enceinte".
  • The rule doesn't apply to the large number of plurals of words ending in "cy" ("fallacies", "frequencies", "vacancies", ... ) because in the UK - in traditional RP - "cies" is pronounced with the "i" of "pin", even though it is pronounced with the "ee" of "feed" by most World-English speakers and by younger UK speakers.

I don't think any of these extensions are useful, with the exception of the one concerning "neighbor" and "weigh". If the rule were to be useful it would have to be useable by all World-English speakers, and it would have to be applicable to all words they were likely to use. Even the "ay" extension is not very significant, because it covers only one of the several sounds that the digraph "ei" can have.

Examples of exceptions to the rule:

Sticking for the moment to the basic rule, "i before e except after c", which is the only version I ever heard until a couple of years ago, here are some exceptions I've noted (I've added five of Ms Tomlinson's words to my old list):

beige, cleidoic, codeine, conscience, deify, deity, deign,
dreidel, eider, eight, either, feign, feint, feisty,
foreign, forfeit, freight, gleization, gneiss, greige,
greisen, heifer, heigh-ho, height, heinous, heir, heist,
leitmotiv, neigh, neighbor, neither, peignoir, prescient,
rein, science, seiche, seidel, seine, seismic, seize, sheik,
society, sovereign, surfeit, teiid, veil, vein, weight,
weir, weird

This list could obviously be extended by adding more derivatives of Latin "scire", and by adding inflected forms of some of the basic words listed. The list has "conscience", "prescient", and "science", but there are also, for example, "omniscient" and "nescient". To "eight" could be added "eighty", "eighteen", and "eighth". And the list could be greatly extended by adding the plurals of all words ending in "cy".

(Is someone going to cite a word ending in "cy" that doesn't form its plural with "cies"? I can't think of any at the moment, given that I'm excluding capitalized words from my discussion.)

With regard to the extension added by some people for "neighbor" and "weigh", and the fact that this is only a start toward covering all the sounds of "ei", I have broken down my list according to the six different sounds "ei" had in that list. In doing so I have excluded cases where the "ei" or "ie" was not a digraph. Here is the list as so reorganized:

/eI/ as in 'pate' and 'weigh':

beige, deign, dreidel, eight, feign, feint, freight,
gleization, greige, heinous, neigh, neighbor, peignoir,
rein, seiche, seine, veil, vein, weight

/AI/ as in 'bite' and 'height':

cleidoic, feisty, gneiss, greisen, heigh-ho, height,
heist, leitmotiv, seidel, seismic, eider

/i:/ as in 'peat' and 'seize':

codeine, either, neither, protein, seize, teiid

/@/ as in 'bacon' and 'surfeit':

conscience, foreign, forfeit, prescient, sovereign, surfeit

/E/ as in 'pet' and 'heifer':

heifer, heir

/I/ as in 'pit' and 'weird':

weir, weird

Exceptions with "ei" or "ie" pronounced as in "species" or "seize":

For those people who insist the rule apply only to words where the digraph has the /i:/ ("ee") sound, and excluding words ending in "cies", here is a list of words that have at least one accepted pronunciation with the /i:/ sound:

caffeine, casein, codeine, deil (Scots, devil), disseize,
either, geisha, inveigle, keister (slang, buttocks),
keister, leisure, monteith, neither, obeisance,
phenolphthalein, phthalein, protein, seize, seizin, sheik,
sheila (Australian slang for "girl", not capitalized),
specie, species, teiid

My suggested conclusion:

My last remarks in the ILink discussion were:

"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?"

Revised 23 February 2002