I Before E Except After C?

Guest column by
Academic Associates founder Cliff Ponder

Students have had to learn that old spelling rule about I before E for over a hundred years. But its wrong! Words like ceiling, receive and conceit fit the rule, but words like ancient, glacier, and science don’t.


There are only eight root words in the entire English language spelled C-E-I, vs. eighteen spelled C-I-E. More than twice as many words are spelled with C-I-E and with C-E-I.

And that I Before E part as a general spelling rule is only right about two-thirds of the time. If you rely on that rule, you’ll misspell one out of every three words that contain E-I or I-E.

There is a third part of that old rule, however, which is one-hundred percent correct. It says, “Or When Sounded Like A, As In Vein Or Weigh.” E-I can copy the sound of long A, as in vein or weigh, but I-E can’t.

The eight C-E-I words are: ceiling, conceit, conceive, deceit, deceive, perceive, receipt, and receive.

The eighteen C-I-E words are: ancient, boccie, coefficient, concierge, conscience, deficient, efficient, fancier, financier, glacier, omniscience, prescience, prima facie, proficient, science, sufficient, society, specie.

Additional Comments by
Glenn Davis

It is amazing how we will take rules like "e before i except after c" at face value without ever checking them out. As Mr. Ponder pointed out above, in this case it doesn't work as well as it should in order to be a rule. Yes, rules will have exceptions, but if the "exceptions" are numerous, then the rule is useless or misleading. We need to take the time to think about things for ourselves and see if they really work or not. Phonics is great and, in my opinion, the best way to read, but we have to make sure our rules really work!

The last part of the I before E rules works, though. It can be successfully tested. Academic Associate students are aware that EI and IE make several different sounds including the long A sound. They also know which two sounds are by far the most common and so they know to try them first when approaching an unrecognized word. Academic Associate students never guess at words, but always sound them out trying the different possible sounds until they find the correct one. Then that word is underlined in their minds. They will know the right sound the next time they see they word!

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