49

As a non-native speaker and before the advent of the panaceas called spell-checkers and auto-correct, I used to often misspell words like receive ( as "recieve") and achieve (as "acheive").

I still make the mistake sometimes and thanks to auto-correct/in-built spell checkers in browsers, I am never able to get a hang of which spelling to use when!

Is there any easy way to remember when to put 'i' before 'e' (as in "believe", "relief" etc.) and when to put 'i' after 'e' (receive, receipt, deceit, and so on)?

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39

The usual mnemonic in English to remember the ruling for this is represented by a fairly simple poem:

i before e, Except after c, Or when sounded as "a," As in neighbour and weigh.

Of course, as with any rule there are some exceptions: the most notable ones are either, neither, inveigle and seize. Unfortunately there isn't a cast-iron procedure for determining what's an exception and what isn't, though the most common cause of an exception is when the word has a long 'e' sound.

  • 4
    @AndrewLeach I've never heard that one, though probably partly because of my accent. I'd say either as "ee-ther" not "eye-ther", which undermines the rule somewhat. – SuperBiasedMan Feb 2 '16 at 10:59
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    @SuperBiasedMan Same here, we say ee-ther and nee-ther. – John Clifford Feb 2 '16 at 11:02
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    Let's call the whole thing off ... – David Garner Feb 2 '16 at 11:11
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    I'm fond of "I before E, except after C, and except when pulling a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbour." – DJClayworth Feb 2 '16 at 15:42
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    Not a very good rule. The list of exceptions is too large: "beige, cleidoic, codeine, conscience, deify, deity, deign, dreidel, eider, eight, either, feign, feint, feisty, foreign, forfeit, freight, gleization, gneiss, greige, greisen, heifer, heigh-ho, height, heinous, heir, heist, leitmotiv, neigh, neighbor, neither, peignoir, prescient, rein, science, seiche, seidel, seine, seismic, seize, sheik, society, sovereign, surfeit, teiid, veil, vein, weight, weir, weird " – DavidPostill Feb 2 '16 at 17:31
7

This might not be what you want to hear, but the answer is practice and internalization.

And spell checking.

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    Hi, Zbynek, your post doesn't answer the question and reads more like a comment. If you have more than 50 reputation points, you can leave a comment. Please refrain from posting an answer like this. – user24743 Feb 2 '16 at 13:46
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    Looking for "rules" that predict how English words are spelled is a fool's errand. No rule will be accurate in more cases than consulting references will be. "Practice and internalization" is a good way to reduce the dependence on references. – jejorda2 Feb 2 '16 at 14:51
  • @jejorda2 - I do agree that practice makes perfect. Yet, it wouldn't hurt to have easy-to-remember mnemonics, at least for non-native speakers, IMO. Had I been taught this rule in my childhood, I would have saved a lot of time without needing to right-click on the red-underlined words and choosing the correct spelling. – BiscuitBoy Feb 2 '16 at 16:25
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    I agree with Rathony. This answer can be posted on almost all questions like this and still valid. Worst of all, it doesn't explain anything that might help OP (and future readers) learn. – Andrew T. Feb 3 '16 at 2:35
  • @BiscuitBoy the point native speakers are making is not to follow the "rule" lavishly, it's more like a handy tip, be also aware of the many exceptions to this tip. – Mari-Lou A Feb 3 '16 at 7:31
6

Most native speakers of English have trouble spelling weird words like "receive" and "achieve". The "I before E, except after C or said as 'a' like in 'neighbor' and 'weigh'" rule helps, but still has "weird" exceptions.

I try to pay attention when spell-checkers complain about these words.

I also remember a few related words:

Reception does not have any confusion between Es and Is. It makes it clear that the "e" goes immediately after the "c" in related words like "receive", "conceive", "perceive", "deceive", et cetera.

Chief is a fairly common word. There is an American professional football team named the Kansas City Chiefs. A "chief" is like a minor "king", where the "i" goes immediately after the consonant. This helps me remember how to spell related words like "achieve" and "mischief".

By the way, Kansas City sports teams have a "king" theme. The following teams have played in Kansas City, either now or in the past:

  • Royals (American League baseball)
  • Monarchs (Negro League baseball)
  • Kings (National Basketball Association)
  • Chiefs (National Football League)
  • Apparently it is a coincidence that the words "king" and "chief" are vaguely similar. "King" is related to the word "kin", and might have meant "battle winner" or "tribe leader", where a "tribe" was a group of related people who fought together in battle. "Chief" is related to the words "chef", "capo", "cap", and "capital", which are related to the Latin word for a person's head. – Jasper Feb 3 '16 at 16:48
5

There is only a handfull of words where long /i :/ is spelt with ei. The following list is from my own collection:

1 to conceive

2 to deceive

3 to receive

4 to seize

5 a surfeit - Short i.

6 weird adj

No.1 with 3 go back to Latin cipere, in French concevoir, decevoir, recevoir. I think the logic of the spelling is from French -cevoir. The i is placed after e. This seems to be a way to remind of the French connection. The French ending -voir is replaced by -ve. The case is different with no. 4 to 6.

Added: As sumelic said "surfeit" is pronounced with short i, so in Oald.

  • I think surfeit is more usually pronounced with a schwa /ə/ or /ɪ/. The related nouns also share the spelling, such as conceit, deceit, receipt, seizure. – sumelic Feb 2 '16 at 18:49
  • @sumelic -Thanks for your hint as to surfeit; you are right. I have to correct it. – rogermue Feb 2 '16 at 18:56
  • (handful) – Peter Mortensen Feb 2 '16 at 22:06
  • @PeterMorten - Yes, you are right. My use of "handful" is not the normal one. I recognize that now. Can you suggest a better word? Perhaps about half a dozen. – rogermue Feb 3 '16 at 1:48
2

I have found that, for situations like this, auto-correct is your enemy.

If you use auto-correct, you will not learn, since it is done for you.

I have my web browser and word-processor HIGHLIGHT ONLY my errors, and I correct them manually. That way, I learn. It's annoying, which helps.

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