Most English language learners know the mnemonic “I before e, except after c.” One uses this rhyme to determine whether to use the digraph “ei” or “ie.” English teachers and learners are often not sure whether this short rhyme applies to the word “weird,” so is “weird” or “wierd” the correct spelling?
The correct spelling is “weird.” “Wierd” is incorrect. Merriam-Webster provides a pseudo-mnemonic that explicitly excludes “weird” from the “i before e, except after c” rule. Spelling rules are often challenging to interpret if you don’t take everything into account. You’ll never use “wierd” again if you look at the modified rhyme and the spelling history of the word.
Read on to learn more about mnemonics, specifically the “i before e” rhyme and the origin and meaning of “weird.”
Confusion Resulting from a Misinterpreted Mnemonic
Since about the 15th century, when English writers started to use “weird,” they spelled it with the “e” before the “i.” During the 16th century, the spelling “weird” appeared in Scottish and Northern English dialects. Standard literary English has adopted this spelling since the 17th century (source).
But then why the debate regarding the spelling of the word? You will find the root of the issue over spelling it “wierd” in a mnemonic that many often incorrectly apply to “weird.”
What Is a Mnemonic?
Before we go further, let’s first explain what a mnemonic is. Per definition, it is a tool that helps us to remember certain facts or large amounts of information. You use a sentence, phrase, song, rhyme, or acronym to form a mnemonic (source).
A mnemonic is a convenient cheat code if you struggle with memorizing a concept. They work because your mind remembers information you can relate to or have experienced. People use mnemonics in a diversity of fields.
Mnemonics aid linguists, doctors, scientists, geologists, artists, and students, including students of the English language (source). The following are well-known examples outside the strictly linguistic field.
Order of planets
You can easily give the order of the planets from closest to furthest from the sun by only remembering the following sentence: “My very excited mother just served us noodles.” (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.)
Order of certain key signatures in music
Music students remember the order of the sharps in every key with the sentence ”Father Charles goes down and ends battle.” (F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, and B#.)
Order of operations in pre-algebra
The sentence “Please excuse my dear Aunt Susie” gives you the order of algebra operations, namely parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, adding, and subtraction.
Mnemonics to Use in the English Language
English learners use a variety of mnemonics to remember how to spell tricky words.
Let’s look at a few where every word in the sentence represents the following letter in the word.
- Arithmetic: A rat in the house may eat the ice cream.
- Necessary: Not every cat eats sardines. Some are really yummy.
- Rhythm: Rhythm helps your two hips move.
You can also use mnemonics to remind you of specific language usage, as shown in the table below (source).
|To remind you that Qs are followed by U’s in spelling.||Wherever there is a Q, there is a U too.|
|To remind you to use “hear” and not “here” when it is about listening.||We hear with our ear.|
|To remember the difference in spelling between the words ‘dessert’ (the thing you eat) and ‘desert’ (like the Sahara desert).||Dessert is sickly sweet.“Sickly sweet” reminds you that the sweet dessert has the double “s.”|
|To remember one c and two s’s in “necessary.”||One collar and two socks, orOne cup, two sugars.|
|To remind you of the two r’s and two s’s in “embarrassed.”||I turn really red when my sister sings.|
|To remind you of when to use “effect” or “affect.”||RAVEN: Remember Affect is a Verb and Effect a Noun.|
The “ie” vs. “ei” Mnemonic Dilemma
To understand the debate on whether the well-known “i before e, except after c” mnemonic is creating more confusion than helping students with the correct spelling, we’ll have to look at the history of this rhyme.
1886: Manual of English Spelling
In 1866, a short mnemonic to help English speakers determine whether to spell a word with “ei” or “ei” appeared in the Manual of English Spelling. In the 1800s and early 1900s, many English textbooks used the same rhyme — “i before e, except after c.”
The purpose of this short rhyme was, and still is, to remind English students how to write words like deceive, receive, and receipt. It works as a simple guideline. But in line with this rhyme, you should spell “weird” as “wierd” because there is no “c” in the word.
Yet that is not the correct spelling as English literature has used it since the 15th century. The teachers and textbook editors of that time tried to solve the problem by declaring that all rules had exceptions and that “weird” was one of them. However, many scholars didn’t know about the exception-rule, learned the rhyme, and spelled the word as “wierd.”
Soon after the Manual of English Spelling publication, it was clear that there were many more exceptions than just “weird” to the rule and the rhyme. This realization called for revising the rhyme, which they did when teachers and textbook editors extended it to include the “a” sound.
The rhyme became: “i before e, except after c, or when sounded as ‘a’ as in neighbor and weigh.”
But, again, there was not any guidance in the rhyme itself on the spelling of “weird.” Many scholars learning the “standard” mnemonic still believed that the correct spelling was “wierd.” “Weird” doesn’t sound like “weigh” and, thus, should have the “i” before the “e.”
A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) discussed the short rhyme “i before e, except after c” and called the rule of thumb “very useful,” despite many possible exceptions.
In a study by Leonard B. Wheat in 1932, he looked at word lists in various American elementary school spelling books. The study showed that of the 3,876 words listed, 128 had “ei” or “ie” in the spelling.
Of these 128 words, 83 conformed to the “i before e, except after c” rule, and 12 conformed to the “and sounded like a” rule. They saw the other words spelled “ei” as exceptions to the rules in the rhyme.
The study concluded that it would be better to either discard the mnemonic entirely or reduce it to simply “i usually comes before e.”
The 1965 Ernest Gowers revision of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage still retained the rhyme. In 1996, Robert Burchfield rewrote it and stated that one could helpfully extend the rule, providing a long list of exceptions.
Merriam-Webster lists what a truly comprehensive “rhyme” would have to be (source). According to this more comprehensive list, the digraph “ie” is also used after “c” when the “c” is pronounced as “sh.” If the digraph has a “c” before it in a comparative or superlative word, the spelling is also -cie.
But if the vowels in the word sound like a long “ee,” or as “i” in the word “height,” the digraph is “ei.” The rhyme goes on and gives more exclusions from the rule. We also use the digraph “ei” in words ending with -ing and in compound words.
Then, the rhyme ends by stating that there are still numerous exceptions like “science” and “weird.”
Although this is still quite confusing, a scholar using the full “rhyme,” although it actually doesn’t, can now for the first time determine from the comprehensive mnemonic that the correct spelling is an exception to the rule, so we spell “weird” with “ei” and not “ie.”
The Debate Whether to Use the Mnemonic Continues
The debate whether the mnemonic is more confusing than helpful is still on. In 2009, there was a radio discussion in the UK on the government’s guidance to schools in a pamphlet called Support for Spelling targeting elementary school teachers.
In the discussion, some people said that even the extended “i before e” rule was not worth teaching. It had too many exceptions, and many English speakers were confused as they didn’t know which words were part of the rule and which not.
Others explained that the rhyme was good to teach young children or English language learners the basic rules.
After the broadcast, some commentators queried whether “weird” really is an exception to the rule. In British English, it is not an exception because the <ei> represents the diphthong [ɪə], not the monophthong [i:]. Thus you should not try to determine the correct spelling of “weird” via the mnemonic (source).
In English, like all other languages, there are many words where you struggle to choose between correct and incorrect spelling. For another spelling challenge, you can read about “in spite” and “inspite” here.
To ensure that your spelling is always correct and that you’re not weird by spelling the word as “wierd,” make use of reliable reference sources like The Oxford New Essential Dictionary or Dreyer’s English. You can purchase both of them on Amazon.
The Weirdness Continues
Now that you know how to spell “weird” correctly, let’s look at where the word comes from and how we use it nowadays.
We use “weird” in modern English as a generalized term describing something unusual. But “weird” had a more specific meaning in Old English. The word derives from the Old English noun “wyrd,” meaning “fate.”
In the 8th century, texts used the plural “wyrde” as a brief notation or gloss for the three classical Fates who spun, measured, and cut the thread of life.
Scots authors in the 15th and 16th centuries also used the phrase “weird sisters” when referring to the Fates. William Shakespeare used “weird sisters” in Macbeth to depict them as three witches. The Old English “wyrd” as a verbal noun has developed into the modern English adjective “weird.”
Since about 1815, the most common meaning of “weird” has been “odd” or “strange.” From the early 20th century, authors and others have increasingly applied the word to everyday situations.
Weird as Adjective, Noun, Verb, and Adverb
“Weird” can function as an adjective, adverb, noun, and verb.
To use “weird” as an adjective is the most common use of the word, where “weird” describes something strange and unusual. It is often something that upsets you.
If you had a weird dream, it generally was an upsetting dream or about strange things. You use the word also as an adjective by saying things like “the weird thing is, I’m the only one seeing it.”
Other examples are “The first day at work was weird” and “When we were young, we did some weird things” (source).
As an adverb, the word “weirdly” describes the verb as in the phrase “it was weirdly said,” meaning the way the person conveyed the message has been weird (source).
You use “weird” or “weirdness” as a noun when you use it as the name of something or refer to something like the Fates, fate, or destiny.
When you use weird as a verb, you generally use it in the context of making someone feel strange, as in “You’re weirding me out by doing that” (source)
There will always be language and linguistic rules, and mnemonics play an essential and integral part in providing teaching tools and methods. Generally, mnemonics offer an excellent solution to remember language rules and the correct spelling of words.
But always remember that mnemonics cannot provide all the exceptions to the rule of thumb. Ensure that you know the whole rhyme when you use the mnemonic. The misunderstanding regarding spelling the word “weird” is an excellent example where a mnemonic that has to accommodate too many exceptions to the rule can be very confusing.