Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The ‘i before e, except after c’ rule is a giant lie

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The rule doesn’t hold. The rule I learned is “I before E except after C and in words that sound “ey” like “neighbor” and “weigh.” But that isn’t even close. Christopher Ingraham reports in the Washington Post:

I before E, except after C.”

The familiar grade school mnemonic is a “supreme, and for many people solitary, spelling rule,” linguist Edward Carney wrote in “A survey of English spelling.” Its primacy has been acknowledged in English grammar textbooks from 1866 (James Stuart Laurie’s “Manual of English Spelling,”) until the present day (Bryan Garner’s “Modern English Usage”).

But like many, many other rules in the English language, it turns out this one is built on a foundation of lies.

A University of Warwick statistician named Nathan Cunningham recently decided to put the i-before-e rule to the test. So he plugged a list of 350,000 English words into a statistical program to see if the math checked out.

The first order of business is to check the ratio of “ie” to “ei” spellings — does i usually come before e? The good news is that it does — in roughly three quarters of all words with either an “ie” or an “ei” pair, the proper spelling is “ie,” as the rule would have you believe.

Think of words like “relief,” “grief,” “niece” or “believe.” The thief was up to a piece of brief mischief in the field, according to the chief.

“So far, the rule is serving its purpose,” Cunningham writes. “If you’re struggling to order an ‘ei’/‘ie’ pair in a word, there’s an approximately three to one chance that the ‘i’ will go first.”

All good so far! Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from here.

On to the second part — “except after c.” Cunningham selected all words in his data set with either a “cei” or “cie” spelling. If the rule were as accurate as we’d been lead to believe, you’d expect the “cei” spellings to greatly outnumber the “cie” ones, right? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2017 at 4:27 pm

Posted in Writing

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