I Before E, origin of Thee?
April 27, 2006 9:06 AM   Subscribe

I before E except after C We all learned the rule, but where did it come from?

The standard (though far from comprehensive) mnemonic I before E except after C (british version: "when the sound is ee it's i before e except after c ") is so embedded in our thinking as to be second nature to most English-literate folks. My question: what is the origin of this rule? Is there a citation for the first (written) recorded usage of this phrase?
posted by Chrischris to Writing & Language (15 answers total)
"Except when sounding as 'A' as in neighbor and weigh." is the addition I've heard, if that helps.
posted by Four Flavors at 9:11 AM on April 27, 2006

The addition Four Flavors refers to substantially increases the instances where the rules is true. But there's still a lot of exceptions.
posted by raedyn at 9:33 AM on April 27, 2006


For what it's worth, I (USA resident) have always known the addendum as ...or when sounded like "a".
posted by staggernation at 9:45 AM on April 27, 2006

... "as in neighbor or weigh"

(So you don't end on a non-rhyming line)
posted by ChasFile at 10:42 AM on April 27, 2006

The only correct version is "I before E, except when it isn't."
posted by eriko at 10:54 AM on April 27, 2006

ChrisChris, are you asking about the origin of the little poem, or are you asking why English words that contain 'i' and 'e' (and sometimes 'c') are spelled the way they are?
posted by alms at 10:59 AM on April 27, 2006

It's also not true in the word "Atheist" or any variation of theist, despite the fact that the two are not sounded as 'a' or anywhere near a c.
posted by Paris Hilton at 11:30 AM on April 27, 2006

Or in the word 'either', which I pronounce both 'ee-ther' and 'eye-ther' depending on how the mood strikes me.
posted by macdara at 11:37 AM on April 27, 2006

I read the poster as asking about the origin of the rhyme, which is an interesting question and not one I have an answer to. I've just posted it on Wordorigins.org; we'll see what the sleuths there come up with.
posted by languagehat at 12:04 PM on April 27, 2006

posted by ScotchLynx at 12:14 PM on April 27, 2006

Paris, true, but there you're pronouncing both vowels, so I'm not sure it counts.

I always remember how to spell "weird" because it breaks the rule.
posted by solotoro at 12:15 PM on April 27, 2006

Origin of the rhyme, please. Which lexicographic or pedagogical (I can only assume something like this would be the invention of a grammar teacher) genius came up with this phrase? Where does it first appear in print? These are the questions I'm looking to answer...
posted by Chrischris at 12:26 PM on April 27, 2006

"I before E, except in Budweiser."
posted by Malor at 1:22 PM on April 27, 2006

I've always found that funny:

It's a rule that is simple, concise and efficeint.
For all speceis of spelling it's more than sufficeint.
Against words wild and wierd, it's one law that shines bright
Blazing out like a beacon upon a great hieght,

It gives guidance impartial, sceintific and fair
In this language, this tongue to which we are all hier.
'Gainst the glaceirs of ignorance that icily frown,
This great precept gives warmth, like a thick iederdown.

Now, a few in soceity choose to deride,
To cast DOUBT on this anceint and venerable guide;
They unwittingly follow a foriegn agenda,
A plot hatched, I am sure, in some vile haceinda.

In our work and our liesure, our homes and our schools,
Let us follow our consceince, sieze proudly our rules!
Will I dilute my standards, make them vaguer and blither?
I say NO, I will not! I trust you will not iether.
posted by Arthur Dent at 2:18 PM on April 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Maybe people's adherence to that rule is why the misspelling "athiest" is popular.
posted by emelenjr at 3:32 PM on April 27, 2006

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