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‘I before E except after C’ – techniques for remembering tricky spellings

It may have the olde-worlde ring of a quaint but questionable proverb, and has indeed been much maligned in recent years, but there’s more truth to this well-known rule than initially meets the eye (or E). Here, we take a lightning tour of the pros and cons of this (in)famous tip and explore some less familiar ones for other errors we often encounter.

I before E except after C

You will be relieved to learn that this classic rule has not been deceiving you – or less than some people would lead you to believe.

What they forgot to tell me at school is that it applies solely to syllables that make the sound ‘ee’, so in fact there’s no need to feel put out that words such as weight and height (although annoyingly illogical) have the letters the other way round. It may sound obvious, but of course it also applies only to words in which the ‘ee’ sound follows ‘c’ directly, so don’t be deceived by achieve, which does in fact follow the rule.

One of the genuine exceptions is ‘weird’, but then what do you expect from a word that means ‘strange’?*

*Others are: chemical names such as ‘caffeine’, ‘codeine’ and ‘protein’; the verb ‘seize’ and its derivatives; and proper nouns such as ‘Sheila’, ‘Keith’ and ‘Eid’. Often listed as an exception is ‘either’, but if you pronounce it the British way rather than the American, then there isn’t a problem.

‘Practice’ versus ‘practise’

We also have our transatlantic cousins to thank for contributing to our confusion about which of these is the noun and which the verb. In American English, it’s ‘practice’ for both, so that ‘the practice of spelling bees is practiced in school’. In British English, however, ‘the practice of spelling bees in not commonly practised’ (and perhaps this is part of the problem!).

With the hindrance of American English, it may seem that we have a less than 50% chance of getting it right, but a simple solution is to use a word for which you can hear the difference between the two forms, namely ‘advice’ (noun) and ‘advise’ (verb), and apply the rule to other examples.

Sadly, this doesn’t help you remember that ‘practice’ with a ‘c’ is also the adjective form, as in ‘a practice exam’.

‘Affect’ versus ‘effect’

Many spelling tips will correctly tell you that ‘affect’ is the action (i.e. the verb) and ‘effect’ is the end result (i.e. the noun), so that a natural disaster may ‘affect vast swathes of the population’ or ‘have a catastrophic effect’. However, this is not the whole story, as ‘effect’ can also be a verb, in the expression ‘to effect (i.e. to bring about) change’. A way of remembering this is that ‘change means something different’ and that this use is different from the general rule.

‘Complimentary’ vs ‘complementary’

If you like someone, you might pay them a compliment. If something is ‘complimentary’ (i.e. free), it comes with the ‘compliments’ of the establishment, because they like having your custom. Meanwhile, to ‘complement’ means to add extra features or make up the numbers, or to ‘complete’, with which it shares its origins and its spelling. So, for instance, a ‘complementary angle’ is one which, when added to another, makes up or completes a right angle.

‘Principle’ vs ‘principal’

One popular rule is that ‘the principal is my pal’, but I prefer to remember that ‘a’ is at the head of the alphabet and that the principal is the head of an organisation, whereas principles are to do with ethics.

As you can see from the above examples, I personally prefer to remember tricky spellings by relating the spelling to the meaning, but some people prefer to use a rhyme, a memorable phrase, or initial letters in a phrase to spell out the word, such as ‘Rhythm has your two hips moving.’

And ‘personally’ is, of course, the key thing – the whole point of a memory technique is that it helps your memory, so it doesn’t matter what the technique is, however weird or whacky, as long as it works for you.

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Posted in Spelling, Vocabulary