The alphabet can be awfully versatile when you need it to be. Take, for example, the letter “C.” When you recite the alphabet, it has a soft, smooth sound, identical to “see.” But mix it with other letters, and you’ve got a whole soundscape to draw from.
On its own, the letter “C” sounds like the word see. But the soft “C” is less common on the whole. You almost always only pronounce a soft “C” if it’s paired with an “E,” “I” or “Y.”
Examples: cease, cedar, cider, cyber
Plus, different C-words have slightly different pronunciations depending on what vowel they’re paired with. For example, celery has a “suh” sound, while cyan has more of a “sigh” sound, and city falls somewhere in between.
The most common pronunciation of the letter “C” is basically interchangeable with a hard “K” or “kuh” sound. Much like a soft “C,” you pronounce the word with a hard “K” depending on what letter it’s paired with — most often, “A,” “O,” or “U,” as well as “L,” “R,” or “T.”
Examples: capital, contain, customer, classy, crystal, district
Unlike soft “C’s,” you’ll find that the pronunciation is pretty universal no matter what vowel it’s paired with. Hard “C’s” paired with consonants do have a slightly different sound, as in cleave (“kl”) or crave (“kr”).
It’s also worth noting that when a “C” appears at the end of a word, it’s typically also pronounced with a hard “K,” such as arc or aphrodisiac.
Pair a “C” with an “H” and you’ve got a cushy, soft sound, as in “cheese,” “chew” or “teach” … most of the time. But sometimes a “ch” makes a different sound. The sound of “ch” changes depending on the placement and the origin of the word.
In English, when “CH” is at the beginning or the end of a word, it’s the soft pronunciation.
Examples: church, change, chocolate, watch, spinach, smooch
But if the “C” is in the middle of the word? It’s usually a “K” sound, like echo. Words of Greek origin will also pronounce “CH” with a hard “K.”
Examples: chrome, mechanic, chemistry
French-inspired words will use the soft “CH” as well, no matter where the letters are located.
Examples: nonchalant, charade
Sometimes a “C” doesn’t make a sound at all, most often when it’s paired with the letter “S.” Scissor and miscellaneous follow this silent “C” rule. But like with many English rules, it’s not universal.
First, there are words with a silent “C” and no “S.” Think of Connecticut — Conn-et-i-cut. You don’t pronounce that middle “C.”
Second, there are other words that do have the “S” next to the “C” and the “C” is still pronounced, often with the hard “K” sound.
Examples: school, scandal, script
There’s a handful of words in English that make a “C” sound like “Shhh!” They’re rare — usually only appearing in adjectives ending with -cious or -cial, as in ferocious or social. Of course, exceptions do pop up. The word ocean is an oddball example of the “c” getting the “sh” treatment, whereas ocelot is pronounced with an “S.”
What have we learned about pronouncing the letter “C?” It wouldn’t be English without a few exceptions.