Flawed Rules Are Better Than None

A favorite pastime with self-proclaimed online wits is to ridicule English spelling.

A particular target is the so-called “I before E rule.” A case in point is this meme a friend recently brought to my attention:

A badly thought-out meme referencing the “I before E” spelling rule.

The meme offers thirteen words that supposedly contradict the “I before E” rule.

Whoever created the meme evidently does not know the rule in its entirety:

I before E,
Except after C,
And when sounded like A
As in neighbor and weigh.

Anyone who has learned this rule will know that neighbor, receives, eight, beige, sleighs, and weightlifters can be spelled correctly with the help of the rule.

That leaves seven exceptions to the rule in this list: a proper name, Keith, a regionalism, feisty, and five frequent-use words, foreign, counterfeit, caffeine, and weird.

English spelling is more challenging than that of many other modern languages. Even so, it is not the chaotic mess that some people enjoy pretending it is.

One argument against the “I before E” rule I have seen is the assertion that “923 English words break the ‘I before E’ rule.”

So what? The English vocabulary can be counted in the hundreds of thousands. Nobody uses all those words in everyday speech. Most of us use only about 3,000 words in our writing. The bulk  of those words—even the ones with peculiar spellings, like eye and one—are introduced so early in our lives that a writer would have to be extremely inattentive to misspell them as an adult.

Here are some frequently used words that do follow the “I before E” rule:
I before E
achieve, believe, belief, brief, chief, die, field, fierce, friend, lie, niece, pie, piece, prairie, priest, siege.

Except after C
ceiling, conceit, conceive, receive, receipt, receive, perceive

And when sounded like A
neighbor, reign, rein, skein, surveillance, veil, vein, weigh

Here are common exceptions:
caffeine, counterfeit, either, forfeit, foreign, heifer, heir, leisure, neither, seize, their, weird

English-speakers don’t have to be able to spell all the words in English.

Just the words they use in their writing.

The time spent creating snarky memes about English spelling exceptions would, IMHO, be better spent learning the rules.

But even computer-using speakers who prefer not to make the effort to learn to spell the words they use don’t have to misspell any of the ie/ei words. I’m pretty sure that any word-processor spellcheck feature will flag every one and provide the correct spelling.

Most “bad spellers” were never taught everything about the English sound code in school.

Everything needed to learn to spell common words is contained in Maeve’s spelling guide: 7 Steps to Good Spelling. Get it here.