Does the rule, I before E except after C actually work? Here we are using a concordancer to check whether it’s true or not. The results may surprise you.
This example demonstrates an approach to using a concordancer in investigating a particular aspect of language.
NB The results were exported in text format and edited for clarity. The contexts here are very limited since they are not used in the analysis at this stage.
I before E except after C
The first step is to make a concordance search for:
That is, we search for any text string which contains the letter combination cie. The asterisks either side are “wild cards” which represent any string of letters. Using this search we can find all words which “break” the i before e rule. The results are:
e state and federal agencies against the below NVOLIO At this same ancient feast of Capulet’s heritable…
What the concordancer has found is a list of words – in context – which break the spelling rule we’re looking at.
Refining the Rule with Plurals
The next step is to work out a better rule. In the list above there are several plurals such as species and currencies.
Does the rule still work with plurals? One way to find out is to do a search for:
This shows all the words which follow the rule but which are also plurals. Doing a search for this string using a concordancer produces no results. That is to say, the rule does not apply with plurals.
So, we can refine the rule and now say:
i before e except after c excepting plurals
Refining More – looking for patterns
But what about the other words in the list above? If we take out the plurals we are left with:
NVOLIO At this same ancient feast of Capulet’s rable properties of coefficient marking, but in the advice of our concierge…
Looking at these words, it is obvious here that many of them contain the letter combination cien. Does this occur in a form that does not break the original rule? A search for:
produces no results. So, the rule can be updated again:
i before e except after c and before n and excepting plurals
Removing those words with the cien combination from the list, we are left with just two words which do not conform to the new rule:
n the advice of our concierge, I enrolled our in the best English society twelve centuries l…
What connects these two words? For a start they are both derived from French and the next step in exploring this idea would be to look at a corpus of French texts to discover if there is some useful rule there which explains this.
In this way we can work through the words we find and slowly develop a rule which covers all eventualities.
Returning to Basics
However, returning to the original rule, i before e except after c, let us look at the opposite side, i.e. words containing ei but which do not follow c. A concordance search for:
This produces a lot of results. These need to be filtered out. We can remove the following types of words from the list:
- words containing cei which conform to the rule
- ei formed by adding affixes, e.g. reinvent, seeing
- proper names with ei, e.g. Einstein, Leibnitz
- foreign words, e.g. monseigneur, reveille
Note: We are filtering out these words for the sake of space and clarity here; a full investigation into the rule would look at these words in more detail.
This leaves us with:
ou gave us the counterfeit fairly ommand esteem. Deign to accept it murder of the deity against whom be used in…
How do we account for these results, each of which is an exception to the rule? A lot of these words derive from Latin and French (which is, of course, itself derived from Latin) and this may be an avenue worth exploring.
Perhaps, however, the use of ie or ei is dependent on the sound of the word. Another avenue worth exploring.
But one conclusion is obvious: the original rule i before e except after c does not work and to make it work we would need to create a rule so complex that it would lose its value as an aid to learning English spelling.
A lot of people take the rule for granted, as they do many other aspects of English. This simple demonstration with a concordancer has shown the rule is not valid in a great many, not just a few, cases.