When to Break the Rules of Spelling

For more than a century, children learning English were taught a rhyme to help them learn how to spell words correctly. We’re sure you’ve heard it:

I before E, except after C
or when sounding like A
as in neighbor and weigh

All well and good, but we’re sure you’ve come across many words that don’t follow that rule, like science and weird. Part of the problem is that the man credited with coming up with this rhyme wrote it in the 1880s, and words have changed pronunciation over time. Also, he lived in England, and there’s a difference between British and American pronunciation of several words with this letter order issue, so the rule may not hold depending on what version of English you’re learning.

One recent recommendation, supported by the Oxford English Dictionary editors, is to rewrite the rule like this:

I before E, except after C
in words where the “ei” sound
is the same as the “ee” sound

With this edit, you can see that the words deceive, ceiling, and conceit clearly follow the rule in both spelling and pronunciation. Words like their and foreign (which have the “ei” letter order without the “c”) and words like ancient and glacier (which have the “c” but use the “ie” order), which were seen as exceptions to the earlier rule, now make more sense under the new rule, because none of these words contain the “ee” sound.

So that’s the good news: by adjusting an old rule, you can come up with one that will help you remember some of the tricks to the spelling of English words. The bad news is that there are still many words that contain either the “ei” or the “ie” letter combination, and learning which spelling is correct is really a matter of practice. Here are some words to work on – can you come up with your own helpful rules?

fierce
neither
efficient
sleight
policies
caffeine