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February 25th, 2004

Prank calls or crank calls / irregardless / i before e?

by Barbara Wallraff

James Yattaw, of Halfmoon, N.Y., writes, “The television program ‘Crank Yankers,’ on Comedy Central, uses puppets to act out phony phone calls made by the show’s cast of performers. The phone calls are referred to as ‘crank calls.’ As a youth, I made such calls, but we referred to them as ‘prank calls’: we were pulling a prank on the person at the other end of the line. When did ‘prank calls’ become ‘crank calls’?”

If what you did as a kid was anything like what the folks on “Crank Yankers” do, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. The comedians on that show carry on like wackos, or cranks. Hence the name. “Prank calls” are more along the lines of “Hello? Do you have pop in a can? You do? Well, please let him out. It’s time for him to come home.” The term “prank call,” along with “crank call,” remains in common use. There’s certainly overlap—a “crank call” is often also a “prank call”—but the two terms have slightly different meanings.

Stephanie White, of Castleton, N.Y., writes, “Someone I know uses the word ‘irregardless.’ How is that a word, since it is a double negative and the word ‘regardless’ always fits better in its place?”

As far as well-spoken people are concerned, “irregardless” isn’t a word. Want to leave the paper lying open to this page where your acquaintance will see it?

Ted Hoogerwerf, of Royal Oak, Mich., writes, “Why is the expression ‘I before E except after C’ taught in schools? There are too many exceptions: ‘being,’ ‘height,’ ‘heir,’ ‘heist,’ ‘reign,’ ‘weight,’ and so forth.”

You’re right that there are an awful lot of exceptions to this rule. Teachers sometimes add limits to it in order to minimize the number of exceptions. One version begins: “When the sound is ‘ee,’ it’s I before E.” With that limit on it, the rule isn’t supposed to apply to any of the exceptions you give. Another version ends: “except after C, or when pronounced ‘ay’ as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh.’” This takes care of some of your exceptions and such others as “eight” and “freight” and “vein.” There’s even a version according to which the rule doesn’t apply “when ‘cie’ makes a ‘she/sheh’ sound”—as in “ancient” and “conscience.”

With all these limitations in place, only a handful of exceptions to the rule remain—“seize” and “caffeine” and “weird,” for instance, and “financier.” Or to put it another way, the limited rule is pretty accurate. But is it easy to remember? Heck, no! Here’s one situation in which using a computer spell-checker is more reliable than following any version of the old-fashioned rule. Spell-checkers are notorious for overlooking correctly spelled wrong words: for instance, a spell-checker wouldn’t notice if I’d just written “cords” instead of “words.” But I can’t think of a single word with an “ie” or an “ei” in it that makes another legitimate English word if those two letters are reversed. Dear readers, can you?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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