“The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes

“The solution is ‘chute,’” said Mrs. Word Guy as she looked at me across the kitchen table during our morning rounds of Wordle, Quordle and (the truly sadistic) Octordle.

“Shoot?” I asked, pointing my finger at her across the table (don’t worry, it wasn’t loaded).

“No, ‘chute, C-H-U-T-E,’” she explained, becoming somewhat less patient. I typed it in and we were off in search of more words. But our little exchange of homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings) had left me wondering just how two such different words could end up sounding exactly the same.

So after we’d completed our word games, I set off in search of some of the rules that attempt to maintain some semblance of order in our mongrel language and was quickly reminded that there are as many exceptions as there are rules (I knew that).

For instance, there’s a rule that explains how an F becomes a V when ES is added to the end of a word to form a plural, as is the case with “scarf” becoming “scarves” or “loaf” becoming “loaves.” An exception to this rule seems to be “dwarfs,” which are the beings usually associated with children’s stories, while “dwarves,” according to “The Hobbit” author J.R.R. Tolkien, are mythical beings.


Another rule says that “When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking,” which helps us remember that the first vowel is pronounced with a long sound. Think “coat,” pain” and “neat.” Exceptions to this rule include words such as “eight,” “guest” and “bread.”

Yet another rule states that Q is always followed by U as in “quick,” “quit” and “quiet”– unless you’re a Scrabble player. In that case you know that “qwerty” (an adjective describing an English-language keyboard), “sheqel” (a form of Israeli currency worth 0.29 U.S. dollars), “tranqs” (tranquilizers) and many other words have a Q that doesn’t need a U.

Probably the most common rule about English is the spelling mnemonic about “I before E except after C,” which, of course, made me wonder if it’s actually true (I also wonder why “mnemonic” begins with a silent M).

A quick search of the internet turned up several sendups of the rule, proving that it’s indeed far from true. For example I found: “I before E except when your foreign neighbor Keith receives eight counterfeit beige sleighs from feisty caffeinated weightlifters,” or “unless you leisurely deceive eight overweight heirs to forfeit their sovereign conceits.”

While internet wit is all well and good, I kept looking for some research that was a little more (OK, a lot more) scientific, and stumbled across a passage from a 1932 article in Elementary School Journal that recommended that “the rule be reduced to ‘I usually comes before E,’ or that it be discarded entirely.”

That was a good start but I kept looking and discovered the work of University of Warwick professor Nathan Cunningham, who obviously takes his mnemonic cliches a whole lot more seriously than do the rest of us.


Using a computer to analyze 350,000 English words, Professor Cunningham discovered that the “I before E” part of the saying proved to be correct about three quarters of the time, and it’s the “except after C” part that’s problematic.

It turns out that in cases where I and E come after C, the I again comes before the E three quarters of the time, so when in doubt, go with I before E. Looking deeper into his findings, Professor Cunningham concluded that a more accurate statement would be “I before E, except after W.”


Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

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