Seriously? How Could Anyone Forget The First Spelling Rule Most of Us Learned?

There it was, staring me in the face.

My wife and I had just turned on the TV to watch ABC World News Tonight, and during the intro the screen flashed the letter that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller had sent to Attorney General William Barr. The first thing I noticed was the misspelling, sticking out like a sore thumb. So I took a picture of the screen (shown above).

Can you see it?

Someone had handwritten a note indicating that the letter was RECIEVED OAG, March 29, 2019.

Hasn’t the spelling of a word jut like that been drilled into all of us since second grade?

There’s even a mnemonic that goes with it:

i before e,
Except after c,
Or when sounded as “a”,
As in neighbor and weigh.

I have to admit, I was not aware of the last two lines of that little ditty until just a couple of hours ago.

As part of my due diligence for the blog post, I went out to good old Wikipedia to see what it had to say about the issue, and as usual, it did not disappoint.

There’s an incredibly long article about the mnemonic.

The mnemonic (in its short form) is found as early as 1866, as a footnote in Manual of English Spelling. That means the basic rule has been recited for over 150 years – and people are still getting it wrong? The longer form, noted above, is found in Rule 37 of Ebenezer Cobham Brewer’s 1880 Rules for English Spelling.

Edward Carney, the 1994 author of A Survey of Eglish Spelling, notes that the mnemonic is “this supreme, and for many people solitary, spelling rule”.

Despite its long history, the rule does have its detractors, since there are many exceptions to the rule.

One person wrote, “Instead of trying to defend the ‘rule’ or ‘guideline’, “‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c'”, why don’t we all just agree that it is dumb and useless, and be content just to laugh at it?”

Another person suggested that the alternative “i before e, no matter what” was more reliable than the basic rule.

But even if there are a lot of exceptions, I’m guessing most people have heard of the basic rule, and in the situation pictured above, the rule should have worked perfectly.

And this was written by someone working at the highest levels of our government.

But I can see why it happens.

Some of my top students routinely misspell Accounts Receivable. I even emphasize to them the first time I introduce the term how it is spelled, and either they weren’t paying attention, or didn’t really care.

To me, spelling matters.

As one example, each year our Department selects about ten finalists to apply for our Medallion Award, awarded to the top student in each academic department. There is not much separating these 10 finalists; they all typically have GPAs over 3.85, they have been involved in many student activities over their four years, often in positions of leadership, and they usually have a great internship on their resume as well. In other words, it’s really hard to differentiate among them. To help with the process, we ask each student to write a 300-word essay on why they believe they deserve the award. My first cut is a misspelled word; as soon as I see one in the essay, I drop that student from consideration. It may seem a little harsh, and quite nitpicky, but as I said, I am looking for anything at all to separate these students from one another, and a misspelled word could be an indication of a lack of care for your work product.

So shame on the person from the OAG office for this error.

I just hope that whoever it is, they use this opportunity to grab of cup of coffee with lots of caffiene, to sieze the day, and to not get wierd about the fact that there’s no scientific rule about how to use i and e in a word.

And here’s a funny routine by comedian Brian Regan where he sahres his childhood experience with spelling: