The Weird I Before E Rule
I’ve always hated the I before E except after C rule. My hatred is simple: a rule is a “prescribed direction for conduct,” and, as far as I’m concerned, it should be accurate very close to 100% of the time.
The Triangle Inequality? That’s a rule that always works.
The sum of the angles of a triangle? It’s 180°, 100% of the time.
Ceva’s Theorem? Completely worthless, to be sure, but also completely correct.
But the I before E rule? I wasn’t sure how often it was inaccurate, but it only took a few seconds to come up with myriad counterexamples:
That’s the thing, right? Math rules always work. Else we wouldn’t call them rules. But grammarians, philosophers, artists — pretty much anyone with a liberal arts degree — will call anything a rule that works some of the time.
So with some help from MoreWords, I created the following Venn diagram:
There are 5,443 words that contain either EI or IE. Of those,
- 3,562 correctly contain IE not following C
- 62 correctly contain EI following C
That is, of the 5,443 words containing EI or IE, 1,591 words violate the rule by having EI without a C in front of it, and 162 words violate the rule by having IE with a C in front of it.
Which is to say, only 66.6% of the words that contain either EI or IE adhere to the rule I before E except after C.
Put another way, the rule is total bullshit.
These numbers are consistent with an analysis from Language Log, which looked at about 8.7 million words randomly pulled from a month of the NY Times. It was found that 174,716 words contained EI or IE, but only 114,070 words correctly followed the rule, which means the rule held about 65% of the time.
One of the readers of Language Log commented that the rule works with the following amendment:
When the sound is long E,
it’s I before E,
except after C.
I’ll call bullshit.
I didn’t even have to think to come up with a list of words for which that modified rule fails:
Speaking of rules…
Philosophy is a game with objectives and no rules.
Mathematics is a game with rules and no objectives.
Mathematics is a game played according to certain simple rules with meaningless marks on paper.
— David Hilbert