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In U.K., 'I Before E' No More

Susan Notes:


ROBERT SIEGEL, host: The words protein, deindustrialize and conscience have something in common. They all violate the rule I before E except after C. There are many exceptions to that rule. In Wikipedia, I found this ingenious sentence - let neither financier inveigle the sheikh into seizing either species of weird leisure. That̢۪s nine exceptions. And if there were eight veiled heinous sheikhs, that would make no more sense, but it would make a dozen exceptions in one sentence.

There are so many exceptions that the British, the people chiefly responsible for the language we speak, have decided to stop teaching the rule. The British government̢۪s new national strategies document̢۪s support for spelling advises primary teachers that the old saw is so irrelevant and confusing, it̢۪s not worth teaching. Ben Schott writes the blog Schott̢۪s Vocab: A Miscellany of Modern Words and Phrases for The New York Times Web site. He̢۪s in London, and Ben Schott, what do you think?

Mr. BEN SCHOTT (Writer, Schott̢۪s Vocab: A Miscellany of Modern Words and Phrases): Robert, you know what? I think they do this just to annoy me. I̢۪m sitting here at a perfectly nice afternoon and then some crazy government department decides to put out an edict, which is an annoying edict about an annoying rule. I̢۪m as mad as hell and I̢۪m not going to take it anymore. It̢۪s a kind of thing to seize a feisty, heinous foreigner like me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHOTT: And, of course, like you said, seize, feisty, heinous and foreigner are all E before I words that have no C. I mean, have they got nothing better to do? It’s an exercise in futility â€" it really is.

SIEGEL: Well, the rule has some defenders, especially it̢۪s defended more easily when you add the line, when pronounced A as in neighbor or way.

Mr. SCHOTT: Yeah. But, I mean, that kind of ruins the cadence of the rather trite (unintelligible) that it is. It does have defenders. And, I mean, obviously there needs to be some rules and some guidelines, otherwise, it would just be crazy. But I̢۪d much rather children were taught to communicate and calculate and cohabit rather than worrying about the absolute correct source of spelling. I think we have better things to do.

SIEGEL: Well, this is what the British Department for Children, Schools and Families says in the document to support for spelling - it says, there are so few words with the E, I spelling for the E sound follows the letter C, that it is easier to learn the specific words: receive, conceive, deceive - and the related words: receipt, conceit, deceit, and, also, perceive and ceiling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHOTT: Easy for you to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHOTT: It̢۪s all very well. I mean, I looked this up in the Oxford English dictionary. And Cs - take Cs - an E before I word without a C, there are about two dozen spellings from the first use in about 1290. We have S-A-I-S-E, S-A-Y- S-E, S-A-S-E, S-E-Y-S-S-E, S-E-A-Zed, oh, and here̢۪s our friend, S-I-E-Zed-E.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Really?

Mr. SCHOTT: Spelled S-I-E-Zed-E in the past. It was used in 1653 to describe a Japanese - a punishment where anybody who was caught selling goose eggs, when actually they were meant to be selling hen̢۪s eggs, would be punished with 30 lashes if they were seized with these eggs on them - seize, S-I-E-Zed-E.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHOTT: So, you know, anybody who thinks that the English language can be set in amber and carved onto the minds of children like granite is completely out of touch.

SIEGEL: But you can̢۪t become a complete spelling nihilist here, which is all I- s, I might add.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: You have to teach kids something, don̢۪t you?

Mr. SCHOTT: I think you do, and I think it’s important. And, I mean, it’s all very well me being cavalier like this, but be very careful when you’re writing your next CV. I think my point is that English is there to be (unintelligible) â€" language is there to roll around your tongue. I literally just come back from Syria and Beirut, and in Beirut you will hear people say, as they leave you, okay, (foreign language spoken). It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful that three different languages in one phrase. And you get the wonderful sense, the texture of the culture and society. Anyone who says, well, hang on a sec, you shouldn’t really be using three different languages in the same, sort of, sentence.

I don̢۪t know, I love it when people just pick the word and (unintelligible) that happens to see them at the time, and as only you can understand them, and as long as, you know, people aren̢۪t offended and deeply hurt, then I think anything goes.

SIEGEL: And in Beirut, of course, there̢۪s an E before I, and it̢۪s not after C.

Mr. SCHOTT: I know. And then there̢۪s a U and then, oh, it̢۪s crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Ben Schott of the blog Schott̢۪s Vocab: A Miscellany of Modern Words and Phrases. Thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. SCHOTT: It̢۪s a pleasure, Robert.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Child: E, I is also used in special words that merit careful study. E before I after C â€" weird, leisure, species, protein.

All Things Considered


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