Monday, June 22, 2009

The Golden Rule: i Before e

There are almost as many "Golden Rules" in writing as there are books on the subject. And though most of these adages are important - important enough to have become axioms, if nothing else - few of them are anywhere near golden. New writers can quickly become overwhelmed by all these Golden Rules, many of which are not that important. This new series will list, examine, and in many cases dismiss, these "Golden Rules."

"i before e, except after c" is one of those Golden Rules of spelling drilled into us as pupils, but today's UK schoolchildren may never even hear it. According to a government document entitled Support for Spelling, which is being distributed to some 13,000 elementary schools, the "rule" is so frequently violated that it shouldn't be a rule at all, and should no longer be taught. The publication lists several alternatives, such as humorous wordplay, studying TV listings, and more.

But many educators say the "i before e except after c" rhyme is still relevant because it's easy to remember and leads to discussion. New devices take time to enact and won't necessarily be more effective. "i before e except after c" strikes a chord with students, according to the author of the book, I Before E Except After C, Judy Parkinson (see link above). "There are words that it doesn't fit, but I think teachers could always get a discussion going about the 'i before e' rule, and the peculiarities of the English language, and have fun with it. That's the best way to learn," she told the BBC.

Words like neighbor, sleight, veil, and sufficient are just a few of the words which violate this precept. There are so many, in fact, that teachers are being told to abandon the phrase altogether.

There are so few words where the ei spelling for the ee sounds follows the letter c that it is easier to learn the specific words.
Perhaps the final authority on the matter, the chairman of the Spelling Society, Jack Bovill, agreed with the government and the Support for Spelling curriculum. The BBC paragraphed him as saying, "It would be helpful if spelling were allowed to evolve."

Yeah. Let's rein it in a bit, Bovill.

© C Harris Lynn, 2009

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