How to spell: words containing ‘ie’ and ‘ei’

British children learning to spell words containing ‘ie’ or ‘ei’ are traditionally taught a golden rule:

Put ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’.

I am sure this rule has kept many people in good stead when confronting the problem of whether to spell a word –ie- or –ei-.

But is this rule correct? Does it always help us?

Yes, the rule is correct on the whole; however it does need some clarifying and there are exceptions. So here goes, as simply as possible.

The thing to consider is the sound we hear when we write ‘ie’ or ‘ei’. Is it, or isn’t it, the ‘e’ sound that we hear in meet and feet?

When the sound is ‘e’, as in meet and feet

Spell the word –ie-. Some examples: believe, yield, reprieve, relieve, retrieve.

However, as the golden rules tells us, after ‘c’ we should write –ei-. Some examples of this are: ceiling, receive, perceive, conceit, conceive, receipt.

There are some exceptions, e.g.: species, mischief, chief, handkerchief.

When the sound is NOT the ‘e’ sound in meet and feet

In this case, always spell the word –ei-. Some examples are: foreign, their, eight, vein, weight, apartheid, feisty, height, neighbour.

Two notable exceptions here are: view, friend.

I hope that helps.

Now, I’ll finish with a little quiz question: which small European country has both ‘ie’ and ‘ei’ in its name?

Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. Follow Stuart and contact him by subscribing to his monthly newsletter.


  1. Cupid - December 13, 2011, 1:08 am Reply

    The answer to the quiz at the end: Liechtenstein.

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