The I before E spelling rule

WSTopics Home   Vivian Cook


The only spelling rule that most English-speaking people consciously know is the familiar 'i' before 'e' except after 'c'. Try it out on this sample to see if it actually works.

recieve   receive

niece   neice

grief   greif

caffiene   caffeine

deciet   deceit

field   feild

believe   beleive

wiegh   weigh

cieling   ceiling

sieze   seize   

biege   beige

percieve   perceive  

Answers: <ie> niece, grief, believe, species, field; the rest <ei>

To explain these oddities, the rule needs to be fixed.

1. It only works when 'ei' goes with the long 'ee' sound of eel. So it does not apply to weigh, beige, or indeed to many words with vowel plus silent 'g': sleigh, eight, reign, neigh. So the rule needs to be expanded to:

'i' before 'e' except after 'c' when 'ei' is said with a long 'ee' sound

2. A few words have 'ei' rather than 'ie' despite having the long 'ee' sound: seize, caffeine

3. It doesn't apply: to plural 'es' currencies, policies; to diphthongs society, science; or when 'c' is said as 'sh' as in sufficient, ancient, proficient


Percentage of mistakes on web pages for some test words

receive 1.8%  

deceive 2.5%

niece 8.7%

seize 1.7%

conceive 2.3%

perceive 1.9%

receipt 0.6%

ceiling 0.3%

caffeine 2.9%


Compared with other really difficult words such as supersede, these percentages seem quite low. Either people have learnt the rule very well, including its exceptions, or it does not really give much difficulty. In any case at best it is a minor rule that affects a small proportion of words. Only 9 of the top 10,000 words in the British National Corpus for example have 'cei' spellings: receive, ceiling, receipt, perceive, conceive, deceive, conceit, transceiver, ceilidh.

Consonant Doubling  Letter Frequencies   Silent Letters