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Probably the best-known spelling rule in English is a jingle that nearly all English-speaking schoolchildren learn:
I before e
Except after c
Or when sounded like a
As in eighty and weigh.

(Sometimes "like" is "as," and the two examples may vary.)

The jingle helps in spelling a certain block of words. However, the rule is more famous for its many exceptions than for its solutions.

I before E

The jingle says that under most circumstances, i before e is the norm.

Examples: achieve / believe / brief / chief / field / friend / grief / niece / piece / relieve / shield / thief / wield / yield.

Except after C

The jingle says that after c, ei is the norm. This part of the jingle was probably the main reason for the mnemonic in the first place. The rule does, in fact, help with a small number of common, and commonly misspelled, words involving c.

Examples: ceiling / conceit / conceive / deceive / perceive / receipt / receive.

It also applies to an even smaller number of rarer words.

Examples: ceinture / enceinte.

Or When Sounded like A

The jingle says that to produce a long-a sound, ei is the norm.

Examples: beige / eight / feint / freight / inveigh / neighbor / reign / rein / reindeer / sleigh / veil / vein / weigh / weight.

Exceptions

Here are some common exceptions to the i-before-e rule where no c is involved and where ei does not stand for a long-a sound: absenteeism / being / codeine / deity / eiderdown / either / feisty / foreign / geisha / heifer / height / heir / heist / keister / Leigh / neither / O'Neill / protein / reimburse / reinforce / seeing / seismic / seize / their / weir / weird.

Here are some common exceptions to the ei rule after c: agencies / ancient / conscience / deficient / efficient / financier / glacier / hacienda / juicier / Lucie / science / society / species / sufficient.

The main confusion regarding the ei spelling for a long-a sound comes from the fact that some words have alternative pronunciations. For example, most English speakers pronounce leisure with a long-e or a short-e sound, but it is spelled with the ei characteristic of a long-a sound (a secondary pronunciation). A similar example is obeisance.

Types of Exceptions

Complex historical and linguistic forces, not a person or group of persons with an agenda, created Modern English spellings. Therefore, inconsistencies, such as the rules and exceptions regarding ie and ei, abound.

Analysts have, however, pointed out a few helpful hints about the ie/ei problem. Those hints include issues of grammar, personal usage, and pronunciation.

An example of the force of grammar is in the use of affixes. In the first category of exceptions above, prefixes (reimburse, reinforce) and suffixes (absenteeism, seeing) play a role in creating the spelling. In the second category, suffixes (agencies, financier, juicier).

Personal usage centers mainly on the spellings of personal names. Leigh and O'Neill are examples in the first category of exceptions, Lucie in the second.

Pronunciation plays a role in the jingle itself, with long-a words being exceptions to the ie norm. But there are other pronunciation-based exceptions as well. Notice that in the "except after c" norm (ceiling, etc.), many words have the ei in a stressed syllable with a long-e sound. However, in the exceptions to that norm (agencies, etc.), many words have the ie in an unstressed syllable and/or with a sound other than long e.

Aids

Teachers have come up with helpful ways to remember the spellings of some exceptions to the i-before-e jingle.

If the sounds of i and e are split in a word, the pronunciation often gives a clue to the spelling. This hint applies equally well to spellings that fit the jingle, such as quiet and variety, and to exceptions, such as deity and science.

Memory aids can help with some words in the ei-instead-of-ie category of exceptions. Height: eight (long-a sound = ei) feet tall wearing a hat. Their: they (long-a sound = ei) with y changed to i. Weird: "we are weird."

_____________

David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (Cambridge, England.: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 272.

Marjorie D. Lewis and Darryl D. Lyman, Essential English: Solving Common Writing Problems (Santa Monica, California.: Goodyear Publishing Co., 1981), pp. 167-169.

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