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'i' before 'e' except after 'c'

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Peter Mika
1165695.  Tue Dec 29, 2015 9:20 pm Reply with quote

4 years ago I endeavoured to clarify the dis-information presented on QI, regarding everyone's favourite spelling rule.

The result was a deal of discussion - which yet failed to elucidate much of any use. If anything, the discussion just 'stirred up the mud'.

Reviewing all of that discussion, and wrangling an overview out of it, I now present what I tend to regard as the definitive analysis of this topic ...


i before e except ....

In 2011 I took exception to the statement, presented on the QI program, that:

"The spelling trick 'i' before 'e' is wrong on so many occasions that schools have stopped teaching it."

A more accurate statement would be:

"The spelling rule:
"When the sound is 'ee', 'i' before 'e' except after 'c'."
is perfectly valid.

The rule must be continued to be taught in schools – and it must also be reinstated in the schools that have stopped teaching it."

The discussion which followed my post on 14th November (see appendix) presents the raw evidence – evidence which may be summarised as follows:

When the rule is properly applied (And sensibly applied: “How can an English rule of spelling be applied to foreign words?”) the only apparent exceptions are:

Caffeine, Counterfeit, Species, Seize.

1.
“Caffeine” and “Counterfeit”, far from being exceptions, actually provide pointers to the correct pronunciation!

“Caffeine” should be pronounced: “Caffayne”.

And, in 2015, I heard a BBC news presenter pronounce “Counterfeit” as “Counterfayt”. Correct! (As we now know.)

2.
“Species” is clearly a plural. It matters not that “species”, like “fish” “sheep” “deer”, is the same in singular or plural form.

What matters is that, when pluralising, “-y” is replaced with “-ies”. And whether the last letter, before the “-y” or “-ies”, is a ‘c” or not is irrelevant.

Although very rarely used, we would all know how to pluralise “Papacy”. Papacies.

Equally: “agency” becomes “agencies”, “policy” becomes “policies”, and “fancy” becomes “fancied” when switching to past tense. It’s not rocket science.

3.
The only real exception appears to be: “Seize”

Even here, the “S” functions as a de facto “C”.

If it were spelt “Ceize” instead, it would not be an exception ...


Appendix:
Transcript of posts and discussion appearing on the QI website under the topic ...

i before e except ....

Peter Mika
864170. Mon Nov 14, 2011 12:11 am
I was amazed to witness the palaver generated from the supposed exceptions to this rule of spelling.

Apparently there more exceptions to the rule than adherents.

S. Fry: "The spelling trick 'i' before 'e' is wrong on so many occasions that schools have stopped teaching it."

Has everyone in the world forgotten?

I still remember sitting in my antipodean primary school at the age of 9 or 10 (circa 1964) and hearing:

"When the sound is 'ee', 'i' before 'e' except after 'c'."

I dare say that the only words to defy this spelling rule will inherently carry some reason for the 'variance':
eg. foreign-language words, or words that are plurals such as 'species'

[Obviously, words where the 'i' and the 'e' are pronounced separately (eg. 'glacier') need not apply, because the sound is not 'ee', and the spelling is dictated by the pronunciation in any case (or vice versa).]

To go further, it might even be be proposed that if a word such as 'caffeine' is deemed to be non-foreign, then 'caffeine' should actually be pronounced "caffayne" (as in the word 'seine', [sayn]: fishing net).

After this revelation, maybe steps can be taken to have this fine rule introduced into schools again ....
Last edited by Peter Mika on Mon Nov 14, 2011 10:49 pm; edited 2 times in total
PS.
For any who may not have seen the episode of QI concerned, following is a list of the words cited on that QI as being exceptions to the rule:

'i' before 'e' except after 'c'

species, concierge, caffeine, weird, glacier, Madeira, hacienda, weir, being


suze
864173. Mon Nov 14, 2011 12:21 am
The rule is certainly better with that bolded part in - but we did a bit of straw polling on this, and found that few had been taught it with that caveat.

Our moderator Jenny - who used to be an English teacher - used to teach that extra bit, and one of the Management recalled having been taught it in school.

I too am an English teacher, and I don't teach the "rule" at all. The remaining members of the research team were unaware of the caveat.

Bondee
864226. Mon Nov 14, 2011 3:09 am
And ceiling. [A reference to Lee Mack’s inpenetrable ‘obtuseness’ on the QI program]

Posital
864227. Mon Nov 14, 2011 3:12 am
Mostly of foreign origin or special cases - (except weir, weird and, species), methinks.

Weird, is just... frankly... weird...

Gooische Vrijgezel
864327. Mon Nov 14, 2011 6:06 pm
Including foreign itself...

Jenny
864513. Tue Nov 15, 2011 7:58 am
The full 'rule' is i before e except after c when the sound is ee. That cuts out concierge, glacier and hacienda (which are also foreign words in any case). Madeira is of foreign origin and a name. Being doesn't count because it's the present participle of the verb 'to be', and moreover has two vowel syllables in its pronunciation.

Weird and weir are well-known exceptions to the rule.

Bondee
864532. Tue Nov 15, 2011 8:25 am
And ceiling.
<wonders how long he can get away with this before someone smacks him in the mouth>


Spud McLaren
864547. Tue Nov 15, 2011 8:53 am
And seize.

If that's wrong, my excuse will be that I'm drunk. If it's right, I'm sober.
Bondee wrote:
And ceiling.
<wonders how long he can get away with this before someone smacks him in the mouth>
You're not getting away with it. They're just ignoring you.

PDR
864558. Tue Nov 15, 2011 9:10 am
I before E except after C - as in Seaside...

[the Smith and Jones memorial joke]

Jenny
864732. Wed Nov 16, 2011 2:56 am
Ceiling fits the rule - i before e except after c when the sound is ee.

Seize is an exception though.

edstephenson
864790. Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:34 am
financier is supposedly the only exception to the "after c" part of "when the sound is 'ee', 'i' before 'e' except after 'c'."

suze
864798. Wed Nov 16, 2011 10:00 am
There aren't a great number, but that isn't the only one. There are a couple of verb forms (eg fancied), and the plurals of various words in -cy (agencies, policies, and so on). Together with glacier for some and species for all.

bobwilson
864813. Wed Nov 16, 2011 11:35 am
So what this comes down to is piss-poor teaching - instead of stating the rule

"When the sound is 'ee', 'i' before 'e' except after 'c'."

teachers have lazily stated

'i' before 'e' except after 'c'.

In line with the BBC's remit to educate, entertain and inform wouldn't it have been appropriate to point out the failings of teachers to state the rule correctly rather than to point out the exceptions to the abridged rule?

This post cut short as we go live to our correspondent on the set of "Strictly Come Competing With ITV" which, of course, must take priority.

exnihilo
864859. Wed Nov 16, 2011 8:03 pm
It's not a wildly useful rule beyond the earliest stages of education. It's a handy guide up until then, but sometimes one just has to remember how things are spelled. Hardly the teachers' or the BBC's fault, bob.

Jenny
864915. Thu Nov 17, 2011 1:58 am
I think one could argue that financier is not an exception. I don't know how other people pronounce it so that may be an issue, but I pronounce it with two syllables at the end, "ci-er", so it's not really an ee sound as it would be if it were pronounced "financeer".

edstephenson
865003. Thu Nov 17, 2011 9:01 am
wikipedia gives the (US) pronunciation as fie nan seer (maybe browsers will get the IPA transcription to come out: /faɪnænˈsɪɹ/ ).

exnihilo
865037. Thu Nov 17, 2011 5:35 pm
The OED offers (fɪˈnænsɪə(r)) as a pronunciation, which is certainly closer to how I pronounce it than WikiPedia's effort.

 
Alfred E Neuman
1165699.  Wed Dec 30, 2015 2:15 am Reply with quote

Peter Mika wrote:
4 years ago I endeavoured to clarify the dis-information presented on QI, regarding everyone's favourite spelling rule.

The result was a deal of discussion - which yet failed to elucidate much of any use. If anything, the discussion just 'stirred up the mud'.

Reviewing all of that discussion, and wrangling an overview out of it, I now present what I tend to regard as the definitive analysis of this topic ...


Instead of quoting most of the previous discussion in an 'appendix', why didn't you just put your post in that thread?

Coming back to the same topic after four years, this must be important to you.


Peter Mika wrote:
1.
“Caffeine” and “Counterfeit”, far from being exceptions, actually provide pointers to the correct pronunciation!

“Caffeine” should be pronounced: “Caffayne”.

And, in 2015, I heard a BBC news presenter pronounce “Counterfeit” as “Counterfayt”. Correct! (As we now know.)


Good luck with that. I don't see the general pronunciation changing anytime soon just to suit a rule. And the correct pronunciation is that in common usage, you can't dictate that.


Peter Mika wrote:
2.
“Species” is clearly a plural. It matters not that “species”, like “fish” “sheep” “deer”, is the same in singular or plural form.

What matters is that, when pluralising, “-y” is replaced with “-ies”. And whether the last letter, before the “-y” or “-ies”, is a ‘c” or not is irrelevant.


No, species is both the singular and the plural. You can't use dynamite to force words to fit your rule. The rule (to be relevant) needs to address reality, not alter reality.


Peter Mika wrote:
Although very rarely used, we would all know how to pluralise “Papacy”. Papacies.

Equally: “agency” becomes “agencies”, “policy” becomes “policies”, and “fancy” becomes “fancied” when switching to past tense. It’s not rocket science.


No, it's not rocket science. It's also not relevant.


Peter Mika wrote:
3.
The only real exception appears to be: “Seize”

Even here, the “S” functions as a de facto “C”.

If it were spelt “Ceize” instead, it would not be an exception ...


Again, good luck with that, I'll not be changing the way I spell (or pronounce) 'seize'.

 

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