I BEFORE E

Spelling whine

[Commentary]

1998

If there's one thing that irritates me everywhere, but especially on the Internet, it's incorrect spelling. I'm not talking about the slips of the fingers that we are all prone to when we are pushing our fingers to get the thoughts down, but the habitual bad spelling of the barely-literate.

I've been through the spelling wars and the spelling flames, and the cries of the barely literate that "it's the message that counts, not the medium". And generally, I accept this. We all see words that are obviously a slip of the finger, and we pass over such things because we all do it. That's fair enough. Or words that are difficult to spell and are frequently misspelt. Like conscious. Or unconscious. Or psychiatry. Or rhythm. These are words that it's hard to get right when you're belting out the words as fast as you can in your eagerness to tell someone why they're such an ignorant dick. But we accept this. It happens.

Then there are the people who show by their consistent abusage that they know nothing of how their language is constructed. And it's quite clear that they don't read much. They might be able to control a computer, and they might be able to navigate through the ludicrous shallows of a Windoze system, or plumb the depths of a Unix system, but they can't communicate with fellow humans. Spoken word, maybe, but not the written word. I've seen messages that looked like artistic stream-of-consciousness attempts; James Joyce's Ulysses in cyberspace (except he could spell). Messages that needed to be decoded. Messages that looked like something interesting was happening, until the agonising process of interpretation showed that it was illiteracy that was the father of the message, not latent artistic abilities. And I've seen messages where it looked like e.e.cummings had been resurrected. And others where no punctuation mark graced several kilobytes.

For those new to cyberspace, this might appear to be classy and spacey and quite legitimate a form of expression, but it isn't. It's just the same old illiteracy moved from the real world to the virtual world. I've been seeing this sort of rubbish online since 1986 and it looked like illiteracy then, and it looks like illiteracy now. It's not new to the world, just new to cyberspace. In the real world, newspapers are one of the biggest public offenders, and they have been dumbing down since they got rid of their proofreaders and started trusting journalists and spell-checkers.

There are two areas of bad spelling that drive me to an absolute frenzy. They are the misuse of the apostrophe and the woeful use of the i before e rule. Americans seem to be worst at the i before e. Hardly any of them can spell weird correctly. And why is it so? I don't know.

I before E

[Commentary]

1998

I see evidence of the i before e problem everywhere. Newspapers are full of it. Any online usage of weird is almost guaranteed to be wrong. Signs say "The Freindly Real Estate People".

But it shouldn't be that difficult to get right. Sometime in our schooling we learnt a rule that went "i before e except after c", and we use this rule slavishly and get it wrong a lot of the time. What about "science"? There's a c, but you put i before e. It's against the rule.

The problem is with the rule. Generally, the rules we were taught were a bit longer than the i before e except after c fragment, but we only remember that short part of the rule. Unfortunately, even if we did remember the complete rules that were taught us, it still wouldn't be enough. There are several versions of the rule, but with each version, there are exceptions that have to be remembered.

Short Rule

When I went looking for the i before e rule, I was looking for a verse that I learnt at school that we would all chant dutifully daily. I still haven't found that verse, but I've found a number of other verses and sayings that try and set the rule. This is the first rule I found:

When the sound is ee (as in sweet),
I comes before E, except after C.

I confess that I only remembered the second line. I suspect that nearly everyone only remembers the second line. Still, this rule is a little vague. It doesn't specify what to do if the sound is not ee. I think it means that you use ei most of the time, unless it sounds like ee and it comes after c.

ABC of English Usage's Rule

In my trusty old The ABC of English Usage by Treble and Vallins, I found this version of the rule:

"When ie or ei is pronounced as ee,
the i comes before the e except after c."

This is only marginally different to the first version. But this rule is accompanied by a list of exceptions to remember: weird, seize, counterfeit, weir and plebeian. And a suggestion that you should remember a few other words: leisure, neither, heir, neighbour, friend, height and freight.

Fowler's Unfound Rule

I spent ages reading through Fowler's Modern English Usage, and although I had fun discovering new things, I didn't find what I was looking for. So, no rule from Fowler.

Reader's Digest

Yes, the Reader's Digest does have some uses. One of them has been to supply me with a great book: How To Write and Speak Better. It contains a longer version of the verse, with lots of exceptions.

Write I before E
Except after C
Or when sounded like a
As in neighbour and weigh.

But with this rule, there are lots of exceptions. Like financier and science, caffeine, codeine, protein, seize, seizure, sheik, weir and weird. Plus 32 more: acquiesce, adieu, alien, anxiety, client, chow mein, counterfeit, courier, fiery, forfeit, foreign, friend, furrier, handkerchief, heifer, heir, hierarchy, leisure, lenient, lie, mischief, mischievous, nonpareil, patient, plebeian, rapier, reveille, sentient, sieve, surfeit, theism and tie.

Summary

What you need to do is choose a rule, realise that it fits most but not all situations, and memorise about 50 exceptions to your rule. Pretty easy exercise, really. The best way to do it, is to read. Read frequently. Read widely. The more you see correct usage, the more likely you will recognise correct usage and use it yourself. And don't read newspapers: you are more likely to see incorrect usage.

Apostrophe

[Commentary]

1998

Apart from being a truly fabulous LP by Frank Zappa, the apostrophe is frequently confused by those with only a partial grasp of the English language, whether it be English, or Australian English, or (that abomination) American English. The Asian variants of Japlish and Singlish and Chinglish seem to have a much better grasp of the use of the apostrophe. You could say the apostrophe is the crux of the biscuit in determining which nation manages to educate its young best.

The apostrophe is simple. It means "some letters omitted here". For example, "let's" is an abbreviation for "let us", and the apostrophe shows that the space and the u have been omitted. Simple. Easy. "There's" is short for "There is" and again the apostrophe tells us that the space and the i have been omitted.

There is one case where the apostrophe can be confusing, and that's with the use of "its" and "it's". But just use the simple rule - the apostrophe shows omitted letters. "It's a nice day" where "It's" is short for "It is". But "That dog, what's its name?" There are no letters omitted, so there's no apostrophe in "its".