The comedian Brian Regan has a routine where he talks about his experience as a child in school. In particular, he singles out a spelling “rule” that he was taught: “i before e.” When his teacher asks him what the rule is, he can’t remember and so she reminds him. Sighing exasperatedly she says, “It’s i before e except after c and when sounding like ‘ay’ as in neighbor and weigh and on weekends and holidays and all throughout May…and you’ll always be wrong no matter what you say!”
This, of course, is an amusingly false exaggeration on Regan’s part, but the sentiment behind it is a true one. There really is an “i before e” rule, and it has several different iterations. One starts out identically to Regan’s: “i before e except after c and when sounding like “ay” as in neighbor and weigh.” Another version states: “i before e except after c when the sound is ‘ee.'” The problem with all of these versions–the problem encapsulated by Regan’s routine–is that none of them are actually quite true. Even with the built in exceptions (“except after c,” “when sounding like ‘ay'”), the “i before e” rule isn’t really a hard and fast rule. It makes no exceptions for simple words like “their” or the number “eight” or more complex vocabulary like “efficient” or “protein.” This does students a huge disservice down the line.
In truth, the “i before e” rule ought to be revealed for what it really is: a mnemonic. Mnemonics are memory devices, ways to help our brains hold on to necessary and occasionally complex information. Music students, for example, have several mnemonics to help them remember the order of musical notes on a staff. Science students use mnemonics to remember the Periodic Table of Elements or the names of all of the planets in our solar system. English is a very complicated language, with nearly as many exceptions as there are rules in the first place, and students should be very proud of themselves for tackling the hard work of absorbing its many complexities. Mnemonics are an excellent way to help in this process, so long as we call them what they are. Designating them as rules when they clearly aren’t only makes the learning process more difficult.
What are some mnemonics that you use in the teaching or learning of English?