Rules are made to be followed. They are constructed so that people can follow them and stay right. So far so good, but what do you do when the exceptions to the rule almost outnumber the rule? Hmm… It isn’t much of a rule at that point, is it? Well, such a situation occurs with the old adage of, “‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’.”
This rule works fine for words like “belief” and “grief.” If you look you will probably find dozens more too. And when the ‘C’ is brought into the equation, as in “receipt” for example, it works great too. But alas (I think that’s the first time I’ve ever written “alas”), there are a few exceptions.
This is not a comprehensive list. I’m sure there are other examples, but here are some of the exceptions I found: beige, 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, neighbour/neighbor, neither, peignoir, prescient, rein, science, seiche, seidel, seine, seismic, seize, sheik, society, sovereign, surfeit, teiid, veil, vein, weight, weir and weird.
You may now be wondering why this rule was ever brought up when there are so many exceptions – and remember, this is not a complete list either. It’s a good question, but there is a kind of an answer. The answer should have been written into the original rule. That would have made it better, in my opinion, but it wasn’t. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone mention the exceptions, or why they are exceptions to the rule.
Here’s an amended rule:
“‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’ and except when the word is pronounced with an ‘A’ sound, as in ‘neighbour’ and ‘weigh.’ Additionally, when the word has an ‘I’ sound, as in ‘height’ and heist,’ the rule doesn’t apply. Also, when a word ends in ‘cy’ and the plural is made by adding ‘ies,’ as in ‘vacancies’ and ‘fallacies,’ the rule generally doesn’t apply either. But, when the word is pronounced with an ‘E’ sound, as in ‘belief’ and ‘grief’ the rule generally does apply (yippee!).”
For a foreign person trying to learn English, this must be very confusing. It’s almost as confusing for those who grew up with English, but there’s no getting away from it. You really just have to learn it and hope for the best. Bear in mind though that this is a rule that very often doesn’t follow the rule. Confused? You will be…
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