There was a mini-fuss about spelling in the British media last week because of a guide, Support For Spelling, that was distributed by the British government to 13,000 primary schools as part of its national strategy for schools. Out of 124 pages of useful suggestions, just one raised hackles. It suggested that the rule, “I before E except after C”, should be dropped because it “is not worth teaching”.
This famous rule has been taught to generations of schoolchildren. It appears in that form in James Stuart Laurie’s Manual of English Spelling of 1866 but must surely be older. It is as firmly fixed in the minds of English speakers as any maxim can be.
Advocates for various entrenched opinions rushed to comment. Those in favour of spelling reform were delighted because it seemed to support their position. An English lecturer seemed to argue that if this rule were abolished we would be left with no rules at all and that English spelling would become anarchy. Michael Gove, the Tory opposition Children’s Secretary, tried to make political capital out of it: “Having systematically lowered school standards for a decade, it is sadly no surprise that the Government is now actively telling teachers not to bother trying to teach children how to spell properly.” Others know it as such an integral memory of their schooldays that to disparage it seemed to threaten the foundations of their understanding of English spelling.
Support For Spelling’s objections aren’t new. The argument against the rule is that there are too many exceptions, such as their, seize, weird, height, eight, sufficient, neighbour, weigh and protein as well as the plurals of words that end in -cy (such as fallacies, frequencies and vacancies) and some words of foreign origin. The length of this list led an unknown wit to coin the much-quoted alternative: “I before E, except when it isn’t.”
The authors pointed out that one problem with it is that it’s only half a rule. Many readers will be as surprised as I am to learn that there’s a longer version: “I before E except after C when the sound is EE”. Henry Fowler gave this addition in the first edition of Modern English Usage in 1926. He said the rule is useful, especially for words that derive from Latin capio, including receive, deceit and inconceivable. However, it’s useless, he noted, for personal names, to the chagrin of people named Keith and Sheila.
The addition gets rid of most of the exceptions, such as their, veil and sufficient, none of which have the ee sound that phoneticians write as /i:/. It fails on seize and on weird if you say it with a pure vowel sound and not the standard British English diphthong. It might also fail on neither and either, since conformity depends on whether you say the first vowel as /i:/ or /aI/ (the first form is mainly American, the second mainly British; in American spelling guides, the words are labelled as exceptions to the rule).
You might instead add a different qualification, as seems to have been common in American schools at one time, “or when the sound is A, as in neighbour and weigh” (eight and beige are among a dozen others that could be cited). Some writers have tried to add “or when the C is said like sh”, though most of the cases caught by it are also trapped by the ee rule (ancient, deficient).
In a note on page 106, the Support for Spelling guide suggests a way out: “There are so few words where the ei spelling for the /ee/ sound follows the letter c that it is easier to learn the specific words: receive, conceive, deceive (+ the related words receipt, conceit, deceit), perceive and ceiling.”
A large part of the controversy seems to have arisen because many people seem to regard it as immutable and universal. It’s not, of course. At best it’s no more than a rule of thumb to help learners over a minor bump on the road to mastery of English spelling.
The controversy was rendered irrelevant later in the week when a leaked report revealed that the Government is about to scrap its flagship national strategy for schools, including its guidance on literacy and numeracy.