In school, we all learned countless maxims and bits of received wisdom that, as we get older, we realize are horseshit. So much of the version of history we are taught is later upended by higher education that sometimes people don’t know where to stop; hence, the ongoing flat-earth conspiracy. And yet the old koan “I before E, except after C,” always seemed reliable enough, in its way. After all, who could prove otherwise?
Nathan Cunn could prove otherwise, apparently. The Irish data analyst, inspired by a claim he saw on TV that the rule is exactly incorrect—that is, that words containing “cie” outnumber those containing “cei”—decided to figure it out. Using a bank of over 350,000 words, he set out to not just see if the maxim was correct, but see if any possible manifestation of it were.
He first sussed out whether or not I truly comes before E, finding that, roughly 3 out of 4 times, it does. Then he checked the “except after C” part, tallying up total instances of ”cei” and “cie” to find that I came before E just as frequently in this data set, as well. So it’s bullshit!
From there, Cunn took a leap to see if the maxim might work with any letters all. Perhaps “I before E, except after C” is bullshit, but what if they come after the letter D or F or J? He ran the numbers again, finding that there are statistically valid cases to be made in three instances: for 1) W, 2) E, and 3) word beginnings. He concludes, “So, perhaps the rule might be better phrased as i before e, except after w, or e or at the beginning of the word’. Somewhat less catchy though.”
Somewhat less catchy, but at least it’s accurate. The revolution begins today.
You can read his whole illuminating, well-illustrated analysis here.