In a word: Dwarves, guests, heirs and other rule breakers

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

“The solution is ‘Slide,'” said Mrs. Word Guy, looking at me across the kitchen table during our morning round with Wordle, Quordle, and (the really sadistic) Octordle.

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

“No, ‘chute, CHUTE,'” she explained, becoming a little less patient. I typed it in and we started searching for more words. But our little swapping of homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings) made me wonder how two such different words could end up sounding exactly the same.

So after we wrapped up our puns, I set out in search of some of the rules that try 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 example, there is 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 when “shawl” becomes “shawls” or ” loaf” becomes “bread”. An exception to this rule seems to be ‘dwarfs’, the creatures usually associated with children’s stories, while ‘dwarfs’, according to The Hobbit author JRR Tolkien, are mythical creatures.

Another rule says, “When two vowels go, the first one speaks,” which helps us remember that the first vowel is pronounced with a long sound. Think ‘coat’, ‘pain’ and ‘tidy’. Exceptions to this rule are words like “eight,” “guest,” and “bread.”

Another rule says that Q is always followed by U, as in “quick”, “quit” and “quiet” – unless you’re a Scrabble player. In this case, you know that “qwerty” (an adjective describing an English-language keyboard), “sheqel” (a form of Israeli currency worth $0.29), “tranqs” (sedatives), and many others Words have a Q that isn’t right don’t need a U.

Probably the most common rule in English is the spelling of “I before E except after C”, which of course made me wonder if that’s really true (I also wonder why “mnemonics” start with a silent M).

A quick internet search turned up several postings of the rule proving that it is in fact far from true. For example, I found “I before E unless your foreign neighbor Keith gets eight fake beige sleds from feisty caffeinated weightlifters” or “unless you fool eight overweight heirs into forfeiting their sovereign conceits.”

While internet jokes are all well and good, I kept looking for some (ok, a lot more) scientific research and stumbled across a passage from a 1932 article in the Elementary School Journal that recommended “reducing the rule to ‘I usually occurs E’ or that it be discarded altogether.”

That was a good start, but I kept looking and discovered the work of Professor Nathan Cunningham of the University of Warwick, who obviously takes his mnemonic clichés far more seriously than the rest of us.

Professor Cunningham used a computer to analyze 350,000 English words and discovered that the “I before E” part of the proverb turned out to be correct about three quarters of the time, and that the “except after C” part is problematic.

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


Lewiston-based Jim Witherell is a writer and word lover whose works include LL Bean: The Man and His Company and Ed Muskie: Made in Maine. He can be reached at [email protected]

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