Column: ‘I before E except after C’ is a big, fat lie

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Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Pluto isn’t a planet. There’s a fifth ocean. Davy Crockett didn’t die defending the Alamo; he was captured and later executed. At least, we think so. Our entire education was a lie!

Before we all get overdramatic and say stuff we don’t really mean, let’s just acknowledge that textbooks don’t always get things right. In fact, textbooks were kind of a new thing in the mid-1800s when the convenient rhyme “I before E except after C” gained popularity. Too bad this mnemonic device is wildly incorrect.

The full rhyme states, “I before E, except after C — or when sounded like A as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh.’”

But what about those foreign atheists who routinely seize caffeinated heifers? It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out this rule is just plain weird. I’m not going to leave your education in a heap of rubble; instead, I’m going to make it more complicated and rebuild it (and then remind you there are always exceptions to the rule).

Here’s a new rule for you that will handle most of your spelling conundrums: Use I before E (believe, priest, thief) except when C is followed by L, P, T or V (receipt, conceive, ceiling), or when sounded like “A” as in weight or “I” as in height (neighbor, sleigh, heist, height), or when a prefix or suffix implies E-I (reiterate, deionize, canoeing).

Phew.

Unfortunately, even this long rule still has exceptions, like either, forfeit, sovereign and reveille. Still, the rule I outline above works 99 percent of the time.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur famously said, “Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind.” We won’t judge the general too harshly for ending his sentence in a preposition; instead, we’ll just consider how his quote (if true even some of the time) makes English spelling and grammar so tricky.

The only way to know how to spell all these words correctly is to memorize them. I recommend investing in a nice set of flashcards; you can study them during your leisure time.

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