The Farlex Grammar Book > English Spelling and Pronunciation > Spelling Conventions > I Before E, Except After C
I Before E, Except After C
Perhaps the best known spelling convention in English is “I Before E, Except After C,” meaning that I comes before E in most words, except when both letters immediately follow C. Due to the simplicity of the rule and its easily remembered rhyming mnemonic, it is often one of the first rules taught to those learning English spelling.
However, even though the basic element of the rule is straightforward, it is actually quite a bit more complicated. In fact, the full rhyme typically goes like this:
- “I before E,
- Except after C,
- Or when sounding like A
- As in neighbor or weigh.”
As we can see, we have to use a word’s pronunciation to decide whether or not I does indeed come after E. And this is not just limited to the “A” sound (/eɪ/) described in the rhyme—there are many exceptions and special cases that we have to consider when deciding whether I should come before E.
We’ll begin by looking at the foundations of the rule, and then examine the various instances in which it doesn’t apply (or the rule changes slightly).
When the letters sound like E (/i/)
The “I before E” rule is most useful if we focus on instances when E and I are put together as vowel digraphs—that is, two vowels working together to form a single speech sound.
With this in mind, the basic rule “I before E, except after C” is fairly reliable when IE or EI function as digraphs that produce the sound /i/ (the way the letter E is said aloud as a word).
I before E
Except after C
E before I when sounding like A (/eɪ/)
The second half of the rhyme—“Or when sounding like A”—alludes to the fact that E often comes before I without C when EI is pronounced /eɪ/ (the way the letter A is said aloud as a word).
This is especially common when EI is followed by a silent GH, as in:
- freight (/freɪt/)
- eight (/eɪt/)
- inveigh (/ɪnˈveɪ/)
- neighbor (/ˈneɪbər/)
- sleigh (/sleɪ/)
- weight (/weɪt/)
(Remember this when using these roots in other words, as in eighteen or weightless.)
In some words, EI also produces this pronunciation before a single silent G or simply on its own. For instance:
- deign (/deɪn/)
- beige (/beɪʒ/)
- feign (/feɪn/)
- reign (/reɪn/)
- rein (/reɪn/)
- surveillance (/sərˈveɪləns/)
- veil (/veɪl/)
- vein (/veɪn/)
And sometimes when sounding like I (/aɪ/)
Less commonly, the digraph EI produces the sound /aɪ/ (the way the letter I is said aloud as a word).
There are only a few common root words in which this is the case:
- feisty (/ˈfaɪsti/)
- height (/haɪt/)
- heist (/haɪst/)
- sleight (/slaɪt/)
Just be sure not to confuse the spelling for slight (an adjective meaning “small in size, degree, or amount”) with sleight (a noun meaning “skill or dexterity” or “a clever trick or deception”)—they both sound the same, but have slightly different spellings.
Exceptions to the /i/ rule (and tips for remembering them)
Even when we narrow the “I before E” rule to digraphs that form the /i/ sound, there are still quite a few common exceptions in which E comes before I but not after C. We’ll look at a few of the most common examples, as well as some helpful tips to remember their spelling. Be aware that this is not an exhaustive list, just a few of the most common occurrences. As always, if you’re unsure of a word’s spelling, check a trusted dictionary.
A very common word that goes against the “I before E when it sounds like /i/” rule is the word weird. A good way to remember that E should come first is the mnemonic “we are weird.”
The word seize is one of the only words in which EI is followed by Z. When you’re trying to remember whether E comes before I, follow this memory tip: because seize is a verb, it needs to end in “-ize” like many other verbs formed from this suffix, so I should come after E in their digraph.
If you’re having trouble remembering how to spell caffeine, it helps to think of it as a combination of coffee + the suffix “-ine,” which is often used to form chemical names. Since we treat the ending like a suffix, I has to come after E.
If we remember the correct spelling of caffeine, we can use it to remember how to spell other chemical names as well, such as protein or codeine.
either and neither
Uniquely, the words either and neither have two common pronunciations, with EI producing the /i/ or the /aɪ/ sound (/ˈiðər/ or /ˈaɪðər/; /ˈniðər/ or /ˈnaɪðər/). Both pronunciations are considered correct, and there is no change in meaning between them.
Here’s a useful tip for remembering the correct spelling for these two exceptions:
- “E comes before I in either and neither, because the letters sound either like E or like I.”
Like either and neither, the word leisure has two different pronunciations. In this instance, though, the EI digraph can form the sound /i/ (/ˈliʒər/, the “long” E sound) or the /ɛ/ sound (/ˈlɛʒər/, the “short” E sound). The first pronunciation is more common in American English, while the second is more common in British English.
No matter how we pronounce the word, though, we can remember its spelling because the digraph always makes an E sound (either long or short), so E must come before I.
Other helpful tips
Although there are many exceptions to the general “I before E, except after C” rule, there are a number of other conventions that we can use together with it to remember the order of I and E in a given word.
I before E after C when making the “sh” sound (/ʃ/)
E will usually come before I after C when it makes the /s/ sound, as in ceiling or receive. However, when C makes the /ʃ/ (“sh”) sound, it is often followed by IE (and usually N). For example:
- ancient (/ˈeɪnʃənt/)
- conscience (/ˈkɑnʃəns/)
- deficient (/dɪˈfɪʃənt/)
- efficient (/ɪˈfɪʃənt/)
- glacier (/ˈgleɪʃər/)
- omniscient (/ɑmˈnɪʃənt/)
Spelling dictated by suffixes
Adding a suffix to a word will often alter its spelling, sometimes producing words that go against the “I before E, except after C” rule. Remember that the spelling of suffixes takes precedence over normal conventions.
Changing Y to I before a Suffix
When a word ends in the letter Y, we almost always change it to I when attaching a suffix to the end. Therefore, almost any word that originally ends in Y will have I before E when we add a suffix beginning with E, even if the two vowels come after C.
Y + “-ed”
Y + “-er”
Y + “-es”
E + “-ing”
When the letter E is the last letter of a word, it is often omitted when a suffix is attached because it is silent in the word. However, we still find instances when adding the suffix “-ing” to a word results in EI. For example:
When forming two syllables
When E and I are split across two syllables (rather than functioning as a single digraph), the sound of the first syllable will usually let us know which letter goes first. If you’re trying to remember the spelling of a particular word, say it aloud, slowly and carefully enunciating each syllable. This is an especially useful tip when remembering how to spell science, since it goes against the “I before E, except after C” rule.
(In these examples, a syllable break will be indicated by an interpunct [ · ] in each word, and by a dot [ . ] in their IPA pronunciations.)
I before E
E before I
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