Spell Check

I before E, except after C …

That’s what they taught us at school. Why? Did they think it funny, to give kids half a spelling rule, and then watch them trip on an overdose of exceptions? Or maybe they were afraid of nurturing potential competition – of over-educating young English teachers of the future.

Now, if they’d given us the whole rule – “I before E, except after C, when the sound is EE” – we’d have been all right. There are actually very few exceptions, and, had the information not been kept on the dark side of the moon – or in Mr Pritchard’s locked desk – these spellings would have been a doddle.

The word ‘doddle’, by the way, was coined in the 1930s, but its origin is unknown. It’s been suggested, though, that it might derive from ‘dawdle’ … or ‘dodder’ … or ‘toddle’.

So, let’s think of some words that follow the rule as we were taught it: hygiene, believe, fiend, niece, receive, ceiling, conceit. Notice that the ie/ei combination is pronounced ee.

… Only when the sound is EE

Now for some more examples. But these words don’t follow the first part of the rule. The ie/ei combination does not make an ee sound.

In beige, neighbour, sleigh, veil, and weigh, the ei combination is pronounced like the a in late.

In eider, height, sleight, feisty, kaleidoscope; the ei combination is pronounced like the i in bite.

In friend, the ie combination is pronounced like the e in end.

A few exceptions

There are a few exceptions, of course, such as weird and caffeine. In both of these words, there’s an ee sound made by ei (not ie), and not after c.

I’ve often heard people bemoaning the alleged irregularity of the English language, and cursing the exceptions that are said to outnumber the rules. ‘English is such a stupid language!’ they exclaim.

I disagree. English is complex and beautiful. It’s just misunderstood.

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