English spelling origin (OT?)

James E. Clapp j.clapp at EARTHLINK.NET
Thu Dec 12 18:44:24 UTC 2002

James Smith wrote:

> So where does "science" fit?

I think the "I before E except..." rule is a rule of thumb for words
where the ie or ei is a digraph.  If the letters are in different
syllables--or were so in the Latin (or other) etymon (as in
"species")--that's a different situation.  Likewise the rule does
not apply to a word like "protein" which, though today usually
pronounced as only two syllables, is etymologically three.  But for
beginning spellers coping mostly with common words like "thief" and
"receive" and "neighbor," it's still a useful rule of thumb so long
as they aren't made to think that it is some sort of absolute

For what it's worth, Random House Unabridged Dictionary on CD-ROM
shows 8685 entries containing either "ie" or "ei", of which 73% are
"ie".  Interestingly, that percentage holds (actually increases to
74%) following "c":  400 "cie" entries (from "abortifacient" to
"Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park") vs. 139 entries
containing "cei" (from "absolute ceiling" to "wide receiver").
Those could be studied in detail to sort out the principles

My own problem in spelling "science" as a child was not with vowels
but with the consonants.  I asked my grade-school teacher how to
spell the word, and she told me to look it up in the dictionary.  I
looked under "si..." and "ci..." and couldn't think of any other
letter that makes an "s" sound, so I had to admit failure.  Then she
tipped me off about the "sc".

Thank goodness I never had to look up "schism"!

James E. Clapp

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