Geek Culture
Published in

Geek Culture

Analysis of English Spelling Rules

I before E and all that

Introduction

In hindsight, I am astounded by the creative methods I spun to memorize the spellings of the litany of English words we become accustomed to in grade school. We didn’t learn to spell most words; we became familiar with arranging their letters. Back in school I can remember incorrectly writing ‘one’ during a dictee where the teacher would recite a word, followed by its context. The correct response was ‘won’, which inspired doubt and confusion. Trial by fire was the method we learned to differentiate homophones.

And upon obtaining our diploma..

people in graduation gowns in front of an academic building
Photo by Leon Wu on Unsplash

Most come out of there to find that they’re clueless without their smartphones. From emails to diary entries, the below three analyses are tailored to help you avoid the pitfalls of our quirky language.

Breaking the Rules
In this section we will look at the classic spelling adage, ‘I before E except after C’ and two other common sources of confusion for all English speakers.The main point is to explore the working of the language in hopes of enhancing our ability and knowledge.

1) I Before E, Except After C

Classrooms world-wide are accustomed to the hypnotic rhyming of the notorious ‘I before E, Except After C’ mnemonic. These students soon find out that the rule isn’t so much a rule, as exceptions are easily found. Grammarly’s blog offers an extension to the rule:

I before E, Except after C, unless it sounds like A, as in neighbor or weigh

just a classroom of school kids
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The author goes on to provide the following examples:

-I before E

Would you like a piece of cake? Jerry will believe anything. They’re planting new grass on the football field .

-Except after C

Darnell received an A on his spelling test. Jeremy spotted a spider on the ceiling . I never expected such deceit from you!

-Unless it sounds like A

Our neighbors live in a beige house. How much does the kitten weigh ?

Some of the exceptions as listed by Grammarly are:
seize, either, weird, height, foreign, leisure, conscience, counterfeit, forfeit, neither, science, species, sufficient

Out of the 115767 distinct entries in the CMUdict database 41 include -cie- while 175 contain -cei-. Even with the extended rule, there are more counterexamples than adherents.

2) Light or Lite?

Definition from Etymoline

Occurring as the final suffix 149 and 205 times respectively, the endings -ight and -ite often express the same phoneme (roughly, sound) within English dialects. In modern times, it seems to me that -ite is particularly used in business applications. Calorie-conscious beverages are marketed as ‘lite’, we see also Facebook releasing their less power-demanding sister-app, ‘Facebook Lite’.

Lite used in the context of app content

Historically -ight was pronounced as a palatal fricative. Over time, several linguistic changes gave the grapheme its modern pronunciations, causing the correspondence with -ite.

As a consequence of this merge, homonyms like right and rite emerge. At one point in history, these two words would’ve had distinct pronunciations.

So, when do I know which spelling to use?

Per the Online Etymological Dictionary the suffix -ite is defined as,

-ite (1)

word-forming element indicating origin or derivation from, from French -ite and directly from Latin -ita, from Greek -ites (fem. -itis), word-forming element making adjectives and nouns meaning “connected with or belonging to.” Especially used in classical times to form ethnic and local designations (for example in Septuagint translations of Hebrew names in -i) and for names of gems and minerals.

-ite (2)

chemical salt suffix, from French -ite, alteration of -ate […]

Although generally people do not go out of their way to discuss the properties of minerals, we know the names of a few common compounds. Calcite, stalactite, stalagmite, etc.

Knowing the origins of these endings in relation to their linguistic history can help in deciding which spelling corresponds to the word in question.

+------------------------------------------+
| Words ending in 'ite' |
+------------------------------------------+
| Preceding Phoneme | IPA | No. Occurrences|
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| AY | aɪ | 170 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| AH | ʌ | 11 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| EY | eɪ | 7 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| IY | i | 7 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| IH | ɪ | 4 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| OY | ɔɪ | 2 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| UW | u | 1 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| Total | | 202 |
+------------------------------------------+

+------------------------------------------+
| Words ending in 'ight' |
+------------------------------------------+
| Preceding Phoneme | IPA | No. Occurrences|
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| AY | aɪ | 126 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| EY | eɪ | 22 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| OY | ɔɪ | 1 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| Total | | 149 |
+------------------------------------------+

3) Comparing -air and -are

Care, mare, tare, chair, pair. The preceding words share the same ending phoneme in standard English. In terms of raw numbers, we are more likely to come across words ending in -are, with 141 total entries vs 79. Moreover, the two graphemes are most often preceded by EH (ARPAbet) /ɛ (IPA) per the table below.

+------------------------------------------+
| Words ending in 'air' |
+------------------------------------------+
| Preceding Phoneme | IPA | No. Occurrences|
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| EH | ɛ | 73 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| L | l | 4 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| EY | eɪ | 1 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| N | n | 1 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| Total | | 79 |
+------------------------------------------+

+------------------------------------------+
| Words ending in 'are' |
+------------------------------------------+
| Preceding Phoneme | IPA | No. Occurrences|
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| EH | ɛ | 111 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| EY | eɪ | 5 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| IY | i | 3 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| AA | ɑ | 2 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| AO | ɔ | 1 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| IH | ɪ | 1 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| K | k | 1 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| S | s | 1 |
+-------------------+-----+----------------+
| Total | | 125 |
+------------------------------------------+

The following are the words which use the graphemes -are but due to their etymology represent an alternate sound. Without citing a source, the below exceptions look to be of romance/latin origin, and are not commonly used in English. IY corresponds to the ea in beat. EY corresponds to ai in bait.

+-------------------------------------------+
| Exceptions to 'are' rule |
+-------------------------------------------+
| word | ARPAbet |
+-------------------+-----------------------+
| ABARE | AA B AA R IY |
+-------------------+-----------------------+
| ALTOMARE | AA L T OW M AA R IY |
+-------------------+-----------------------+
| BALDASSARE | B AA L D AA S AA R IY |
+-------------------+-----------------------+
| BUTARE | B UW T AA R IY |
+-------------------+-----------------------+
| CESARE | CH EY Z AA R EY |
+-------------------+-----------------------+
| CURARE | K Y UW R AE R EY |
+-------------------+-----------------------+
| DECESARE | D IH CH EH S AA R IY |
+-------------------+-----------------------+
| DEGUTARE | D EH G UW T AA R IY |
+-------------------+-----------------------+
| DICESARE | D IH CH EH S AA R IY |
+-------------------+-----------------------+
| DIMARE | D IH M AA R IY |
+-------------------+-----------------------+
| HARARE | HH ER AA R IY |
+-------------------+-----------------------+
| LAZARE | L AA Z AA R EY |
+-------------------+-----------------------+
| LEGARE | L EH G AA R IY |
+-------------------+-----------------------+
| POPOLARE | P AA P OW L AA R IY |
+-------------------+-----------------------+
| ROBARE | R OW B AA R EY |
+-------------------+-----------------------+
| SISTARE | S IY S T AA R IY |
+-------------------+-----------------------+

From Weekly’s Etymological Dictionary, we find homophones that both come from an Old English context. In summary, we cannot rely solely on the etymology of these words to help us in memorizing their spelling.

Stair
Anglo Saxon, flight of stairs, staircase. This is still the sense of Scottish stair, while in English a plural form has been current from 14 century;
Cognate with Anglo Saxon stgan, to ascend (Common Teutonic; confer Dutch stijgen, German steigen, Old Norse. stga, Gothic. steigan)
Confer Dutch steiger, stairs. Staircase is 17 century. Formerly also of stone steps, as still on Thames (Wapping Old Stairs).

Stare
Anglo Saxon, starian;
Confer Dutch staren, Old High German, starn, Old Norse. stara;
Cognate with German starr, rigid, as in starr anschauen, “to stare upon”
[…]

While it isn’t clear upon hearing a word, knowing the etymologies helps solidify the knowledge by connecting the concepts to something tangible.

Conclusion

Etymology can sometimes help us understand why we have certain spelling rules in English, and give context to spellings that sound similar but are not written alike. I hope this analysis inspires you to continue exploring this topic.

Since I am not a linguist, please leave any criticisms and questions in the comments!

Thanks for reading,
Kyle

--

--

--

A new tech publication by Start it up (https://medium.com/swlh).

Recommended from Medium

When You’re NOT the Problem

Brain Block — Barriers in Communication

Secret recipes of learning a new language

Why Is Learning a Language More Difficult than Other Skills?

The Origins of UK Place Names

How Netflix can help you learn another language

Doublespeak: You Don’t Realise You’re Being Lied To

The Best Resources for Non-Native English Speakers

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Kyle MacQuin

Kyle MacQuin

Writing about tech and words — and sometimes the combination of the two.

More from Medium

How to endure social events — Survival kit for introverts

Day 38 of #66DaysOfDataChallenge

Unspoken Power

A quote about what is better left unsaid.

5 Internet Hacks for Students