The 'I Before E Except After C' Rule

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

You've probably hears the spelling rule that says, 'I before e except after c, or when pronounced ay as in neighbor.' This rule is easy to remember because of the rhyme in the jingle, but there are some exceptions to the rule.

Memory Aid

The words relieve and deceive sound alike, but the spelling in the second syllable of the word is different. The i comes before the e in relieve, but the e comes before the i in deceive. How do you know which words use the ie combination and which words are spelled with ei?

The answer lies in the jingle:

i before e except after c, or when pronounced ay as in neighbor.

This jingle is memorable because it rhymes, and it's a great way to remember an important spelling rule, because it's absolutely correct - except for those pesky exceptions, which we'll get to in a minute.


Examples of i before e

There are many words that exemplify the first part of the i before e spelling rule. The letter i occurs before the e in all of these words because the letter before the ie combination is something other than c. Check out the examples in the following list.


• relief

• friend

• hygiene

• grief

Examples of the 'except after c Part of the Rule

Just as the jingle says, the 'except after c' part of the rule pertains to words in which the two letter combination follows the letter c. In these words, the combination is reversed: you use ei, not ie.

Notice the following examples:


• ceiling

• receive

• conceive

• deceit

Examples of EI Sounded as AY

The last part of the jingle reminds us that when the ei is pronounced ay as in neighbor, the e is placed before the i. There are several words that follow this rule. Can you think of other examples to add to the list below?

• neighbor

• sleigh

• beige

• vein

Exceptions to the Rule

Wouldn't it be great if that were all there was to it? However, this is English after all, and like many spelling rules, there are a few exceptions. That's right - some words just brazenly throw this carefully crafted rhyme right out the window and put e before i, even though the letters don't follow a c and aren't pronounced with the long a vowel sound ay. Take a look at the examples below.

• foreign

• height

• leisure

• weird

• protein

• seize

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