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The first order of business is to check the ratio of “ie” to “ei” spellings — does i usually come before e? The good news is that it does — in roughly three quarters of all words with either an “ie” or an “ei” pair, the proper spelling is “ie,” as the rule would have you believe.
Think of words like “relief,” “grief,” “niece” or “believe.” The thief was up to a piece of brief mischief in the field, according to the chief.
“So far, the rule is serving its purpose,” Cunningham writes. “If you’re struggling to order an ‘ei’/‘ie’ pair in a word, there’s an approximately three to one chance that the ‘i’ will go first.”
All good so far! Unfortunately, it's all downhill from here.
On to the second part — “except after c.” Cunningham selected all words in his data set with either a "cei” or “cie” spelling. If the rule were as accurate as we'd been lead to believe, you'd expect the “cei” spellings to greatly outnumber the “cie” ones, right?
In fact, the opposite is true: “cie” words outnumber “cei” ones by about three to one. The ratio of “ie” to “ei” is exactly the same for the after-c words as it is for all words in general.
"This addendum to the rule completely useless,” Cunningham writes. “You still have roughly three to one odds that the ‘i’ goes first.”
As it turns out, for every “ceiling” there's a “concierge,” a “conscience” and some “celibacies.” For every “deceit,” there are “deficiencies,” “delicacies” and a “dicier.” The iciest glaciers make idiocies out of the conceit of “except after c.”
Cunningham is far from the first to question the i-before-e orthodoxy. Back in 1932, an article in the Elementary School Journal noted the many exceptions to the rule and concluded that “if it were not for the fact that the jingle of the rule makes it easy to remember (although not necessarily easy to apply), the writer would recommend that the rule be reduced to 'I usually comes before e,' or that it be discarded entirely.”
But over the decades, defenders of the rule have attempted to salvage it by proposing various amendments. “I before e, except after c when the sound is 'ee,'" as one formulation would have it. Or, “I before e except after c, or when sounding like A, as in neighbor or weigh.”
But these formulations, too, have their exceptions. “Species” or “financier” for the former, for example, or “being” or “counterfeit” for the latter.
I before e, except after c<br/>
Or when sounded as 'a' as in 'neighbor' and 'weigh'<br/>
Unless the 'c' is part of a 'sh' sound as in 'glacier'<br/>
Or it appears in comparatives and superlatives like 'fancier'<br/>
And also except when the vowels are sounded as 'e' as in 'seize'<br/>
Or 'i' as in 'height'<br/>
Or also in '-ing' inflections ending in '-e' as in 'cueing'<br/>
Or in compound words as in 'albeit'<br/>
Or occasionally in technical words with strong etymological links to their parent languages as in 'cuneiform'<br/>
Or in other numerous and random exceptions such as 'science', 'forfeit', and 'weird'.