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

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

“The solution is ‘fall’,” Mrs. Word Guy said, looking at me across the kitchen table during our morning rounds of Wordle, Quordle and (the truly sadistic) Octordle.

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

“No, ‘fall, FALL’,” she explained, becoming a little less patient. I typed it in and we were off in search of more words. But our little swap of homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings) had me wondering how two words so different could end up sounding exactly the same.

So after finishing our puns I went looking for some of the rules that try to maintain some semblance of order in our bastard tongue and was soon reminded that there were just as many exceptions than 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 with “scarf” becoming “scarves” or “bread” becoming “loaves”. An exception to this rule seems to be “dwarfs”, who are the beings usually associated with children’s stories, while “dwarfs”, according to “The Hobbit” author JRR Tolkien, are mythical beings.

Another rule says that “When two vowels walk, the first speaks”, which helps us to remember that the first vowel is pronounced with a long sound. Think “coat”, pain” and “groomed”. Exceptions to this rule include words such as “eight”, “guest”, and “loaf”.

Yet another rule states that Q is always followed by U as in “quick”, “leave” and “silent” – unless you are 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 US dollars), “tranqs” (tranquilizers) and many other words have a Q that doesn’t need a U.

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

A quick internet search revealed multiple postings of the rule, proving that it is indeed far from true. For example, I found: “I before E, except when your foreign neighbor Keith gets eight counterfeit beige sleds from feisty caffeinated weight lifters,” or “unless you quietly trick eight overweight heirs into ‘they renounce their sovereign vanities’.

Although the spirit of the internet is fine, I kept looking for a little more (OK, a lot more) scientific research, and came across a passage from a 1932 article in Elementary School Journal that recommended whether “the rule is reduced to ‘I usually comes before E’, or it is eliminated entirely.

It was a good start, but I kept looking and found the work of University of Warwick professor Nathan Cunningham, who obviously takes his mnemonic snaps much more seriously than the rest of us. .

Using a computer to analyze 350,000 English words, Professor Cunningham found that the “I before E” part of the saying turned out to be correct about three-quarters of the time, and it was the “except after C” part that posed problem.

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


Lewiston’s Jim Witherell is a writer and lover of words 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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