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I saw this writing on a coffee mug, which is supposedly popular amongst linguists:

i before e

Except after C
and also when you
heinously seize your
feisty foreign neighbor's
conceited beige heifer
from the ceiling.
Weird.

I don't get the humor; could someone, please, spell(no pun intended) it out for me?

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    The mug lists a rule and then drops in 10 exceptions to it. Dec 6, 2021 at 20:09
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    Is "spell" a joke here? Dec 6, 2021 at 20:09
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    @PhilSweet - Ah, eight + conceited and ceiling. Dec 6, 2021 at 21:01
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    It's not so much humour as a contrivance to put all those exceptions in one sentence. Dec 6, 2021 at 22:19
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    @YosefBaskin I'd replace conceited and ceiling with ancient and glacier, just to make it even more confusing. Dec 7, 2021 at 14:20

3 Answers 3

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"i before e except after c"* is a spelling "rule" that many people remember from school or just because it's often repeated. It refers to words like "piece" to help people remember the "ie" order, and words like "conceive," where the "e" follows a "c" and is before the "i", like some similar words. But there are many exceptions to the "rule." The text on the mug lists many of these exceptions, and strings them together into a weird little story, so it's a clever and surprising refutation of the "rule." That makes the mug either funny, or for some people who have trouble with spelling, tragic.

  • The full "rule" is often quoted as: "i before e, except after C, or when sounded as 'a' as in neighbor and weigh"
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    Every rule about the English language has an exception... except this one.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6, 2021 at 20:41
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    Convenient isn't a good example because the the ie there is a diphthong. Better examples are niece, fiend, and piece, among others, and perhaps words like lie, pie, and tie.
    – phoog
    Dec 6, 2021 at 22:55
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    I hope you'll switch to a better example than "convenient." See lexico.com/grammar/i-before-e-except-after-c. Dec 7, 2021 at 6:53
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    I will say in partial defense of this rule that the full version goes "...or when sounding like 'ay' as in 'neighbor' or 'weigh'" (which covers 3 of the "exceptions" on the mug). Dec 7, 2021 at 15:32
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    @MissMonicaE: We learnt it as "... when the sound is 'ee'", which also rules out most of the exceptions :)
    – psmears
    Dec 7, 2021 at 16:54
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user8356's answer correctly describes the meaning behind the text on the mug.

As for the "humor," I would agree with Weather Vane's comment—if the mug is "funny" at all, it is not "ha-ha funny" like a knock-knock joke. Rather it is the comic irony of the mug laying out a supposed "rule" and then listing many exceptions which make the mug humorous, if "humorous" is even the right word.

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    Well, I let out a big guffaw as I read through it and the point hit me. Just seighing...
    – Lee Mosher
    Dec 7, 2021 at 19:42
  • 'Comic irony' and the mentioning of the POB debate over how funny this is form the correct answer here. Dec 8, 2021 at 17:34
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The accepted answer is correct, but I want to add that I always heard the full rule stated as:

I before E, except after C, except words that sound like "A", as in neighbor and weigh

So the mug is just replacing the last part of the rhyme with an absurd list of other words that also break the rule, highlighting that even this rule is broken numerous times in English, beyond the additional words sounding like "A". The rule as stated above is meant as a rule of thumb, that is, not as a logically or fully complete rule, as that would be nearly impossible in the context of a simple rhyme.

The humor is directed at the English language itself and the many ways it breaks its own rules.

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  • @EdwinAshworth I meant "full rule" as in the full wording of the "I before E" rule as I've often heard it, not in the sense that the rule was comprehensive or complete in itself. Dec 7, 2021 at 17:36
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    @EdwinAshworth Point taken. I have edited my answer to better clarify that the rule is not meant to be an absolute and complete rule. Dec 7, 2021 at 18:03
  • Thanks, Sarah. Welcome to ELU, by the way. (I deleted '(a belated one)' and '(belatedly)' there. This place can take over.) Dec 7, 2021 at 18:55

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