I before E except after C

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"I before E, except after C" is a mnemonic rule 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:

The rule is very well known; Edward Carney calls it "this supreme, and for many people solitary, spelling rule".[1] However, its short form as above has several common exceptions; for example:

Many more exceptions are listed below.

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:

Some authorities deprecate the rule as having too many exceptions to be worth learning.



The mnemonic (in its short form) is found as early as 1866, as a footnote in Manual of English Spelling,[2] edited by schools inspector James Stuart Laurie from the work of a Tavistock schoolmaster named Marshall.[3] Michael Quinion surmises the rhyme was already established before this date.[4] An 1834 manual states a similar rule in prose;[5] others in 1855 and 1862 use different rhymes.[6][7] Many textbooks from the 1870s on use the same rhyme as Laurie's book.[4]

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.[8] Mark Wainwright's FAQ posting on the alt.usage.English newsgroup characterises this restricted version as British.[9] The restriction may be implicit, or may be explicitly included as an extra line such as "when the sound is e" placed before[9] or after[10] 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":[11]

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,[12][13][14] which became common in American schools.[4]

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage has an entry "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 listing exceptions. 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 /eɪ/"', and giving a longer list of exceptions, including words excluded from Fowler's interpretation.

Modern views

Edward Carney's 1994 Survey of English Spelling describes the rule as "peculiar":[1]

Its practical use is ... simply deciding between two correspondences for /iː/ 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 /iː/ rather than /eɪ/) are exceptions, heifer, leisure with /e/≡<ei> or rein, vein with /eɪ/≡<ei> are not exceptions; <ie> is not a usual spelling of /e/ or /eɪ/.

As to the usefulness of the rule, he says:[15]

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 /iː/.[16] 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%.[16] Rarer loanwords not in the wordlist may not conform; e.g. the Gaelic word ceilidh is pronounced /keɪliː/.

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.[9] 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?"[17]

Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster has said the neighbor-and-weigh version is "chocked with tons of exceptions", listing several types.[18] On Language Log in 2006, Mark Liberman suggested that the alternative "i before e, no matter what" was more reliable than the basic rule.[19] 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'."'[10]

The 2009 edition of Support for Spelling, by the English Department for Education,[20] suggests an "Extension activity" for Year Five (nine-year-olds):

In the Appendix, after a list of nine "useful spelling guidelines", there is a note:

There were widespread media reports of this recommendation, which generated some controversy.[4][10]

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’."[21]


The following sections list exceptions to the basic form; many will not be exceptions to the augmented forms.

Words which break each half of the rule include cheiromancies, cleidomancies, eigenfrequencies, obeisancies, and oneiromancies.

The rule also does not apply to proper nouns, such as names, for example Reneisha.


Some large groups of words have cie:

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.[22] These figures were generated by a QI fan from a Scrabble wordlist.[23]

ei not preceded by c

Many words have ei not preceded by c. Some groups are:

The larger categories, above, inform the stricter forms of the I before E rule: excluding all those with the /eɪ/ FACE sound, or excluding anything that does NOT have the /iː/ FLEECE sound. With either of these additional restrictions, the I before E rule has far fewer exceptions. Even with the strictest form, however, miscellaneous words still break the rule, and some even fall outside of this lengthy list of categories. Some of these exceptions are listed below.

ei exceptions by sound

In the list which follows, 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 eir in the spelling; each phoneme each represented phonetically as at Wikipedia:IPA for 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 /iː/ variant more common in America than Britain (e.g. sheikh, leisure, either have /eɪ/, /ɛ/, /aɪ/ respectively). In these cases, the British pronunciation is a corollary of the British "long e" rule (i.e., when spelt ei, the pronunciation cannot be /iː/).

/eɪ/ FACE
these exceptions are excluded by the American version: abseil, beige, cleidoic, deign, dreidel, eight, feign, feint, freight, geisha, gleization, greige, greisen, heigh-ho*, heinous*, inveigh, inveigle*, neigh, neighbo(u)r, nonpareil*, obeisance*, peignoir*, reign, rein, seiche, seidel, seine, sheikh*, skein, sleigh, surveillance, veil, vein, weigh. (This sound is never spelled ie,[25] except perhaps in lingerie).
/ɛər/ SQUARE
these exceptions are excluded by the American version: heir, their. (This sound is never spelled ier)
these exceptions are the only ones that slip through the strictest interpretation of the British version: either*, heinous*, inveigle*, keister, leisure*, monteith, neither*, obeisance*, seize, seizin, sheikh*, teiid (see also the chemical names such as caffeine listed above).
/ɪər/ NEAR
these exceptions may slip through the British version: weir, weird. (This sound may also be spelled ier, as in pierce.)
/aɪ/ PRICE
eider, either*, einsteinium, feisty, gneiss, heigh-ho*, height, heist, kaleidoscope, leitmotiv, neither*, Rotweiller, seismic, seismograph, stein, zeitgeist. This sound may also be spelled ie, but only at the end of a morpheme as in die, pies, cried.[26]
/ɨ/ (see weak-vowel merger)
counterfeit, foreign, forfeit, reveille*, sovereign, surfeit
heifer, leisure*, nonpareil*, peignoir*. (This sound may also be spelled ie, as in friend.)
/æ/ TRAP
e and i in separate segments
albeit, atheism, deify, deity, herein, onomatopoeia


The rhyme is mentioned in several films and TV episodes about spelling bees, including A Boy Named Charlie Brown, The Simpsons episode "I'm Spelling as Fast as I Can", and an episode of Arthur.

The rhyme was used as a climactic plot device in the 1990 TaleSpin episode "Vowel Play" when Kit corrects Baloo's spelling by reciting the second half of the mnemonic.

I Before E (Except After C): Old-School Ways To Remember Stuff was a miscellany released in the UK for the Christmas 2007 "stocking filler" market,[27] which sold well.[28]

"I Before E Except After C" is a song on Yazoo's 1982 album Upstairs at Eric's. The Jackson 5's 1970 hit "ABC" has the lyric "I before E except after C". "I before E except after C" was a 1963 episode of the TV series East Side/West Side.

In the musical, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck learns how to read and Widow Douglas tells him to remember "I Before E Except After C" in the song "I can Read".

It is the center of a joke by comedian Brian Regan in which Regan adds a made up extension of the rhyme which goes "I before E except after C, and when sounding like A as in neighbor or weigh... And on weekends and holidays and all throughout May, and you'll always be wrong no matter what you say".[29]

It is also mentioned in an episode of Mind Your Language. Mr Brown taught his students how to spell receipt with this method.

I Before E is the name of both a short-story collection by Sam Kieth and a music album by Carissa's Wierd, in each case alluding to the unusual spelling of the creator's name.

Until the 1930s, Pierce City, Missouri was named "Peirce City", after Andrew Peirce. A 1982 attempt to revert to the original spelling was rejected by the United States Census Bureau.[30]


  1. ^ a b Carney 1994, §2.8.2 pp.67–68
  2. ^ Laurie, James Stuart (1866). Manual of English spelling. London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co.. p. 59. OCLC 266992241. http://books.google.com/?id=yL8DAAAAQAAJ.
  3. ^ "Laurie's Manual of English Spelling". The Bookseller (J. Whitaker) (109): 15. 31 January 1867. http://books.google.com/books?id=WGXQAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA15. Retrieved 25 February 2011.
  4. ^ a b c d Quinion, Michael (4 July 2009). "I before E except after C". World Wide Words. http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/ar-ibe1.htm. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  5. ^ Tallant, Anne (1834). The practice book; containing lessons in dictating, with questions, intended to remove difficulties in English instruction, and to communicate interesting historical and natural facts (2nd ed.). London: J. Hatchard & Son. p. 68, fn.. http://books.google.com/books?id=0cJVEf_mvKgC&pg=PA68. Retrieved 27 February 2011. "As a little confusion is experienced by scholars, when spelling dissyllable verbs ending in ie, it is well to remember that when the diphthong is preceded by c, it is invariably ei,—ex: perceive, deceive, conceive, &c, and when preceded by any other consonant, ie, ex:—believe, reprieve, retrieve, &c."
  6. ^ Michôd, John (1855). "Vowels: Rule 5". Orthographic aids; or, Mnemonics for spelling and exercises in derivation. London: Longman. p. 9. http://books.google.com/books?id=pmsCAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA9. Retrieved 25 February 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 not c by name,
    Except in such words as—counterfeit, seizure,
    Plebeian and Proper Names such as Madeira."
  7. ^ Mongan, James Roscoe (1862). The practical spelling book (2nd ed.). London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co.. pp. 13, fn.. http://books.google.com/books?id=OuwIAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA13. Retrieved 27 February 2011. "Unless preceded by a c, / The i is placed before the e."
  8. ^ Colquhoun, John Stuart (1871). "Rules for Spelling English Words". A compendious grammar and philological hand-book of the English language. Griffith & Farran. p. 15. http://readafrica.org/Members.4/OCA/A/acompendiousgra00colqgoog.pdf#page=25. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  9. ^ a b c Wainwright, Mark (September 1997). "I before E except after C". alt.english.usage. http://alt-usage-english.org/excerpts/fxibefor.html. Retrieved 25 February 2011.
  10. ^ a b c Pullum, Geoff (22 June 2009). "I before E". Language Log. University of Pennsylvania. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1525. Retrieved 25 February 2011.
  11. ^ Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham (1880). Rules for English spelling. p. 48. http://books.google.com/books?id=xXECAAAAQAAJ. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  12. ^ Reed, Alonzo (1884). Word lessons: A complete speller adapted for use in the higher primary, intermediate, and grammar grades. Clark & Maynard. pp. 101–10€“2 §§143–146. http://www.archive.org/stream/wordlessonsacom03reedgoog#page/n107/mode/1up. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  13. ^ California State Board of Education (1886). Speller. State Printing Office. p. 127. http://books.google.com/books?id=JddEAAAAIAAJ. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  14. ^ Gillingham, Anna; Stillman, Bessie Whitmore (1970). Remedial training for children with specific disability in reading, spelling, and penmanship. Educators Publishing Service. p. 173. http://books.google.com/books?id=QY9LAAAAYAAJ. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  15. ^ Carney 1994, p.74
  16. ^ a b Carney 1994, p.314
  17. ^ "Exceptions to the rule 'I before E except after C'". FAQ. alt.usage.english. 23 February 2002. http://alt-usage-english.org/I_before_E.html. Retrieved 25 February 2011.
  18. ^ Stamper, Kory. "I before E" (Adobe Flash). Ask the Editor. Merriam-Webster. http://www.merriam-webster.com/video/0003-ibeforee.htm. Retrieved 25 February 2011.
  19. ^ Liberman, Mark (18 November 2006). "Mrs. Olsen gets a D". Language Log. University of Pennsylvania. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003785.html. Retrieved 25 February 2011.
  20. ^ "Support for Spelling". The National Strategies: Primary Framework: Literacy Framework. Department for Education. February 2010. http://downloads.nationalstrategies.co.uk.s3.amazonaws.com/pdf/c9275388873dcd6c647ff6cf9d1a2841.pdf. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  21. ^ "i before e except after c". Oxford Dictionaries Online. Oxford University Press. 2010. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/page/142. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  22. ^ "I Before E Except After C". QI Series 8 Ep 14 Hocus Pocus Preview. YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duqlZXiIZqA. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  23. ^ "Series H, Episode 14: Hocus Pocus". QI Talk Forum. 21 December 2010. http://www.qi.com/talk/viewtopic.php?p=767810#768569. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  24. ^ Carney 1994, § p.161
  25. ^ Carney 1994, p.168
  26. ^ Carney 1994, § pp.151–2
  27. ^ "Mnemony clever ways to remember stuff". The Daily Telegraph. 12 December 2007. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3669867/Mnemony-clever-ways-to-remember-stuff.html. Retrieved 25 February 2011.
  28. ^ "BA book prize lists 20". The Bookseller. 26 August 2008. http://www.thebookseller.com/news/ba-book-prize-lists-20.html. Retrieved 25 February 2011.
  29. ^ Stupid in school, Brian Regan Live; joke audio
  30. ^ United Press International (1 September 1982). "Bureau sticks with 'i' before 'e'". The Bulletin (Bend, Oregon): p. 15. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=LI9TAAAAIBAJ&sjid=n4YDAAAAIBAJ&dq=i-before-e&pg=6751%2C3162466. Retrieved 28 February 2011.