Spelling demon: -ie or -ei?

Sreedhar Mandyam

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One of the spelling demons that often causing misery to even professional writers are words with  -ie or -ei in them. Sometimes it seems -ei and other times it seems -ie. Just when you figured out some rule another word that comes in to upset the rule. Is there any rule at all? Like most language issues, there are rules and then there are exceptions to the rule. So you need to learn the rule, apply it, and also learn the exceptions and remember them.

Perhaps many of you will recall the ditty you learned in your school

It is always I before E
Except after C
And when pronounced as A
As in weigh.

This little poem serves well in most places. It is always I before E except after C. Take a look at some examples: receive, conceive, perceive, deceive, ceiling. In all these words it is e before i as they follow c. In the following words it is i before e as they do not follow a c: relieve, achieve, grieve, piece, fierce, believe. So far so good. The rule holds up. The third line of the rhyme says, And when pronounced as A as in weigh. The examples of that would be, beige, neigh, reign, neighbour, feign, vein, veil. In all those words the combination of ‘ei’ is pronounced as an ‘a’ sound. So the rhyme works very well. Now, what about the exceptions?

Some of the exceptions to the I before E rule: caffeine, leisure, neither, either, protein, weird.
When the C is pronounced as an ‘sh’ and not as a ‘see’ sound then it is i before e although there is a c in the word. Examples are ancient, conscience, species, sufficient, glacier.

The last exception for E before I although there is no C in the word. These words can be remembered as having long or short ‘i’ sound in them. Some examples: height, sleight,

Rule 1: I before E when the word has a long of short ‘e’ sound (achieve, belief)
Rule 2: When the word has a long or short ‘i’ sound then it is E before I (sleight, height)
Rule 3: If there is a C in the word and it is pronounced with ‘see’ sound then it is E and I (ceiling, receive)
Rule 4: If there is a C in the worked and it is pronounced with a ‘sh’ sound then it is I and E (ancient, species)
Rule 5: When the combination of E and I is pronounced as ‘a’ sound then it is E before I (neighbour, rein)
Much of getting the correct spelling is knowing the rules, knowing the exceptions and constant attention and the desire to get the spelling right. Know the rules, apply the rules and memorize the exceptions.
Tip: Next time you are typing on the computer and the red underline shows up under a wrongly spelt word, don’t use autocorrect but look deeper into the word and see if you can correct it yourself.

Ready to take a quiz on this spelling demon? Go here.