I’s got new language rules, I count ’em
It’s one of the very first things I remember learning in primary school: i before e except after c.
Now, we could be able to put that rule to rest. Recent research by a University of Warwick statistician, Nathan Cunningham, has found that i before e except after c is largely a fallacy – ‘cie’ spellings outnumber ‘cei’ words three to one, and the research shows there’s a more accurate ‘except after’ letter: ‘w’. But that doesn’t fit the tidy rhyming mnemonic so well!
It’s the ‘except after c’ caveat that’s the most problematic. The ‘i before e’ clause of the rule stands, relatively, true. There’s an approximately three to one chance that the ‘i’ will go first. Not bad odds…
But the ‘except after c’ clause is a rhyming red herring. After number-crunching 350,000 words, Cunningham reported: ‘It turns out if an “ei”/“ie” pair follows a “c”, it’s slightly less likely that the “i” goes first than in the general case, but the difference is so marginal that it makes this addendum to the rule completely useless. You still have roughly three to one odds that the “i” goes first.’
Then he did something interesting – he created some more accurate, but far less catchy, spelling rules. First, he discovered if there’s any other letter where the ‘i before e’ rule tends not to hold. And he produced this new rule to replace grammar’s most nostalgic myth: i before e, except after w, or e or at the beginning of the word. And, using the same method, he came up with a new general rule for spelling: i before all vowels, except sometimes u.
Try remembering all that aged five.
Cunningham’s research got me thinking. Are language rules becoming redundant more quickly in an age of writing for the internet, and the associated enthusiastic neologism coining and spreading?
It’s the natural progression of linguistics but it divides the word-loving community into two distinct camps: the purists and the evolutionists. The ultimate question is: how do we know when a linguistic rule is officially extinct? When enough people on the internet do it, lazily copying the errors of the last? (I veer between purist and evolutionist from paragraph to paragraph.)
I spoke to Tony Thorne, Language Consultant at King’s College London. He admits to spending his time closely following these spats – some of them ferocious – on Twitter.
‘I’m cautious about the fashion among fellow descriptivists (those who think linguists and lexicographers should record language as it manifests itself in the real world, not try and impose “rules” on people’s utterances and writing) to dismiss all attempts to uphold conventions’, Tony says. ‘This is because I also teach languages to international students for whom English is a second or additional language. They all find a knowledge of conventions useful if not essential.’
He continues: ‘I also help writers of all sorts, journalists, and translators with the nuances and complexities of English. The answer is to put aside old-fashioned talk of “rules” but focus on what is appropriate in different contexts… Language is not one institution but a matrix of varieties, sub-varieties, and styles for which “appropriacy” is key, not “correctness”.’
Personal taste also dictates some of these ‘rules’. Somehow they spill into ubiquity as if they were the lexical Magna Carta. In Stephen King’s On Writing, for example, he makes the case (indeed a recommended rule) to ban all adverbs in creative writing – evidently because he thinks they’re a lazy way of describing things. It’s something I’ve been taught in creative writing classes. But I’ve seen beautiful story-telling laden with adverbs, many times.
With that in mind, I asked Tony Thorne to tackle some of the more debatable rules:
The singular ‘they’
Tony says: ‘Americans are much more pedantic than Brits in general. Their professional editors have been going crazy on Twitter for years about whether we can legitimately use singular “they” (“There’s someone at the door, ask them what they want.”) instead of gendered pronouns. This hasn’t been an issue in the UK since Chaucer’s time.’
He even comes up with a new handy rhyming mnemonic, beating the rule-loving purists at their own game: It’s OK to use singular they!
My husband and I / Tony and me
‘People still debate about whether you should say “my husband and I” (like our dear Queen) or whether “my hubby and me” is permissible’, Tony says.
‘The traditionalists tend to pin their convictions (like with not ending sentences with prepositions) on imaginary prohibitions based ludicrously on Latin influence. They don’t even get the Latin right.’
‘Fewer’ vs ‘less’
Tony says: ‘People are still tediously debating this. Some linguists go to town on it. It’s a classic case of learn the traditional convention and apply it in formal writing but ignore it in informal contexts if you wish.’
But Tony could think of one personal pet peeve where he believes the prescriptivist traditionalists have a point:
Could of / should of
‘Progressives will say that it’s quite all right to use “could of” or “should of” in place of “should have” or “could have”’, he says. ‘But it isn’t if you are writing an academic paper or attending a job interview.’
In summary, Tony Thorne argues we’re in a ‘new Elizabethan age’ where many people feel free to play with, change, and invent new forms of language.
‘But it’s not the same, enriching process in the 21st century’, Tony says. ‘In the 16th century most people were illiterate and the elite who enriched the language were frequently fluent in Latin, Greek and contemporary European languages.
‘Nowadays even the educated may be monolingual, so they have only English to adapt, reinvent (or mangle if you are a purist). This is why the changes to modern English do not tend to make it more mellifluous, more cosmopolitan, or more complex, but tend to simplify it, smooth out its inconsistencies, find shortcuts, shed obscure, or little-used terms or structures.”
And there you have it. An au revoir to i before e (except after c) – and perhaps even some of those other modern linguistic myths.