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This is the spelling rule you were taught at school that's not actually true


It’s popular these days to be a spelling and grammar Nazi isn’t it. ‘Oh it’s not less, it’s actually fewer’, ‘Oh that’s an Americanism, you shouldn’t be using that’ and ‘Oh, what the hell does covfefe mean’.

But, despite the best efforts of the annoying pedants to put you off bothering at all, spelling and grammar is quite important in making sure you get your point across in the way you intend. Witness, for example, the importance of the comma:


So, in conclusion, spelling and grammar: a good thing to get right.

But what if we told you that one of the biggies that you were taught at school – a major rule of spelling, was actually a big fat lie?

Well, you would receive the news with interest.

And, if you hadn’t guessed already it’s this one: ‘i before e except after c’.

Nathan Cunningham, a second-year statistics PhD student at the University of Warwick, recently attempted to assess the accuracy of this ‘rule’ after watching an episode of QI which claimed that there were more exceptions to the rule than actual words which obey it.

He took 350,000 English words and found that, across all ‘first letters’, there was a 75 per cent chance that ‘i’ goes before ‘e’.

And for the ‘first letter’ being c? Well, he made the startling discovery that it’s almost exactly the same chance. That is, 75% of the time, it will be ‘cie’ and only 25% of the time will it be ‘cei’. So the rule is virtually redundant.

The letters with the highest incident of ‘ei’ following them are ‘a’, ‘w’ and ‘e’ – around 70, 70 and 75 per cent ‘ie’ respectively – which you could say was an awe-some discovery (sorry).

So the ‘rule’ really should be, ‘i before e’, except after a, w and e’, although that doesn’t really roll off the tongue.

Here’s the full letter runthrough:

i before e chart

However, one reader made the not-entirely-unreasonable query:

“Does the well-known 'rule' become any more useful if you weight the words by frequency of usage?”

To which Nathan directed them to further research by statistician David Marx, which found that, no, the findings are still similar. He, in fact, goes further, making superior suggestions for the ‘a before b except after c’ rule:

P before E except after C

I before C except after I

T before E except after M

R before D except after N

Now, go forth and spread the exciting new knowledge you have learned.

(Image: iStock)



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