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Arr I before E

There are 923 words that break the "i before e" rule. Only 44 words actually follow that rule.

This is a picture circulating right now, claiming that a huge majority of the words break the "i before e" rule, and that only a few actually follow it.

Is the rule as often incorrect as the picture claims?

"I before E, except after C" is a mnemonic rule of thumb for English spelling. If one is unsure whether a word is spelled with the sequence ei or ie, the rhyme suggests that the correct order is ie unless the preceding letter is c, in which case it is ei.

Wikipedia link that explains the rule

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    That is very specific, and I am pretty sure that is wrong. I'd rather see the spirit of the claim questioned than detailed data. – Wertilq Apr 22 '13 at 6:37
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    I saw a version of the I before E rule, that was a bit more complex, and probably a bit more correct. spelling.org/free/instructional/ie_rule.htm – Wertilq Apr 22 '13 at 15:15
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    I believe this question is much harder to answer than simply examining a dictionary. You would also need to take into account word frequency. If there are thousands of "ei" words that you've never even heard of before that could obviously skew the results. – Octopain Apr 22 '13 at 22:48
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    The rule I learned was "'i' before 'e' except after 'c' or when sounded as AY as in neighbor and weigh." Still fails on some borrow words (especially from German) but works very well as far as I can tell. Not my lookout if you learned an incomplete version of the rule. I see that @Wertilq's version covers the German derived words and some of the even odder cases. – dmckee Apr 22 '13 at 23:28
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    One needn't be omniscient to see that the rule is inefficient. Science is sufficient for proficient and conscientious fanciers to see that the rule is deficient in our society. – Larry OBrien Sep 23 '14 at 2:25
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It won't be possible to skeptically analyze whether or not the rule is useful. I will stick to analysis of the factual claim. I'm assuming that the "i before e" rule is exactly as you've quoted from the Wikipedia article.

The claim in the image is false.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, there are 8161 words that involve the letters i and e adjacent to each other.

To follow the rule, they would have to occur in the order "ie", unless they are preceded by the letter "c", in which case they must occur in the order "ei".

  • Words that have ie, not after c (ambience, achieved): 5232
  • Words that have cei (apperceive, ceiling): 182

To break the rule, they would have to occur in the order "ei" without being preceded by a "c" or appear in the order "ie" while being preceded by a "c".

  • Words that have ei, not after a c (abaeile, abeigh): 2423
  • Words that have cie (abortifacient, ancient): 384

So, among all ei or ie words in the Oxford English Dictionary, 5414 words follow the rule of thumb, and 2807 break the rule.

EDIT: The picture is similar when taking word frequency in to account. In a list of "the top 5,000 words in American English":

Those that follow the rule:

  • Words that have ie, not after c: 72
  • Words that have cei : 6

Those that break the rule

  • Words that have ei, not after a c: 19
  • Words that have cie: 10

So, among these most frequent words there are 78 supporting the rule, and 29 against.

  • 3
    @Oddthinking, I used the online interface to the dictionary to search for the relevant letter combinations. I added links to the searches that I used. – user5582 Apr 22 '13 at 7:31
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    the only problem with this answer is words taken from foreign languages are included and they tend to follow the rules of their parent language. – Ryathal Apr 22 '13 at 12:30
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    All English words came from "foreign" languages. Brythonic, Saxon, Old Norse and others are all Greek to me. QED. – RedGrittyBrick Apr 22 '13 at 12:42
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    Implicit in that rule is that "ie" is used to make the long-e sound (-ee-). When I was taught the rule there was a second clause ... 'or as in "AY" as in "neighbour" or "weigh"'. With this clause the performance of the rule is much better. – Chris Cudmore Apr 22 '13 at 15:09
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    @DisgruntledGoat it would also depend on which words follow the rule - if the ei words are far less common in terms of actual usage than the ie words, then the rule would still be useful. – evilsoup Apr 22 '13 at 16:18

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