Learn the Rule for Whether to Pronounce the Letter "c" as Hard "k" or as Soft "s"

By Gillian Hendrie

Learn when c is pronounced [s] and when [k] in English. This simple-to-understand rule will ease your pronunciation problems.

English learners can have a hard time choosing which sound to use in words containing the letter c, but the rule is actually very simple - with the usual few exceptions!

Pronunciation Symbols Used

The symbol ī has been used to denote the sound of the letter "i" in words such as night, climb, and tiny.

All other letters used should be pronounced as in everyday English use.

Hard c

The letter c is pronounced [k] :

  • when followed by a, o, u or a consonant*
  • at the end of a word

Examples

ca-: car, cast, recall;

co-: coat, copper, accomplish;

cu-: cut, acute, accurate;

c+consonant: article, across, respect;

-c: tunic; arithmetic, havoc.

* consonants are the letters of the alphabet without the vowels (a, e, i, o, u), so for English they are b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, z.

Soft c

The letter c is pronounced [s] :

  • when followed by e, i or y

Examples

ce-: celebrate, recede, peace;

ci-: cigar, Cinderella, principal;

cy-: cymbal, fancy, Lucy;

Exceptions

There are very few exceptions to this rule, not counting foreign words which have been borrowed into English.

One notable exception is Celt [kelt], describing e.g. the Irish and Scots.

Mixed sounds

Of course, some words have both of the features explained above. Apply the rule for each c separately.

Examples:

  • conceal [konseel] - co is hard, ce is soft
  • reconcile [rekonsīl]
  • recycle [reesīkl]

This also applies to words with two c's together.

Examples:

  • access [aksess] - c + consonant (the second c) is hard, c + e is soft
  • accent [aksent]
  • vaccine [vaksīn]
  • Rebecca [ribekka] - both c's are hard (c + consonant and c + a)

Other exceptions

A Note on "c+h"

You know all about the [tsch] sound of "ch" in words such as church, match, choice, cheer, arch, achieve, chief, and children.

However, the combination c+h is not always pronounced this way.

  1. Sometimes the h is there between a c and a "soft vowel" to indicate that the hard [k] sound is needed, e.g. architecture, ache, scheme, anarchist, archive, catechism, schism, chiropodist, monarchy, psychiatric, chasm, chemical.
  2. Sometimes "ch" in words of foreign origin is pronounced [sh], e.g. in mustache, cache, niche, chic, machine.