GrammarPhile Blog

When to Use the Letter C

Posted by Sara Richmond   May 5, 2022 11:00:00 AM


Spelling with the sounds of letter C

The letter C is a big weirdo. Some people might even think it’s useless. It’s a K and S wannabe, but just not up to standing on its own, right?

First of all, how dare you insult such a cute letter. Second, no. Allow me to explain what this letter is all about, and how and when to use it.

The sounds of C

  • C makes two sounds:
    • Hard /c/ sounds like a K. Examples include classic, cart, tunic, can, correct and rescue.
    • Soft /c/ sounds like an S. C makes a soft sound when it’s followed by the letter E, I, or Y. Examples include center, cement, bounce, cereal, ice, privacy, and celery.
    • Fancy words with both sounds: constance, cycle, circle, and cancel.

When to use C instead of K

  • Whenever you’re spelling a word with a beginning /k/ sound, use C unless the next letter is an E, I, or Y (because then the C would make a soft /s/ sound).
  • Conversely, if a word has a /k/ sound at the beginning and the next letter is an E, I, or Y, you can be sure it begins with a K. Examples include kick, kitten, kid, kind, key.
  • Exceptions:
    • You may note rule breakers (such as kangaroo and karate), but these are words borrowed from other languages, so we cannot apply English phonetics.
    • This does not apply to /kn/ because K is silent in that consonant team. So you should just treat it like an /n/. Remember though that /kn/ will never be found in the middle or at the end of a word, only at the beginning.

When to use /ck/ instead of C or K

  • Good news! This consonant team only makes one sound: hard /c/ (or /k/) as in “Back that truck up, young buck!”
  • Use /ck/ in one-syllable words where the hard /c/ sound immediately follows a single vowel. Examples include clack, cluck, stock, quick, deck.
  • Exceptions that aren’t really exceptions include:
    • Compound words: backpack, buyback, peacock, bedrock.
    • Words with prefixes/suffixes: stackable, cracking, defrock, nonblack
      • Words ending in /ic/: This is a suffix as well, for words borrowed from Latin or Greek, so we don’t apply the /ck/ rule.
    • Use K in words when the /k/ sound comes after a consonant or vowel team. Examples include dark, chalk, cheek, creek, peak, bank.

When to use /ch/ and /tch/

  • /Ch/ makes three sounds.
    • /ch/ as in “chicken”
    • /k/ as in “school”
      • The /k/ sound is heard in words of Greek origin, such as choir, mechanic, chemistry, and character.
    • /sh/ as in “chef”
      • The /sh/ sound is found in words of French origin, such as machine, brochure, chalet, and brioche.
    • /Tch/ makes one sound, /ch/ as in “match.”
    • When to use /ch/ and /tch/:
      • When immediately following a single vowel, English words usually use /tch/, as in fetch, crotch, witch, crutch, switch, scratch, and splotch.
      • When following a consonant or vowel team, we usually use /ch/, as in munch, perch, each, coach, starch, and beseech.
      • At the beginning of a word, always use /ch/. There is no sane way to pronounce /tch/ at the beginning of an English word. Try it. Told you.

Now that you’re an expert on the sounds of C, who its best letter friends are, and how to spell with C, here’s a riddle to tickle your brain.

What geographical feature has all three letter C sounds?

Hint: There were four but now there are five. It’s the biggest.

Submit your guesses, questions, and funny C stories below. We love hearing from you.

(And if your questions don’t at all relate to this blog post, that’s okay!)


Want some more help with spelling? Check out 5 Tips to Become a Better Speller.


Topics: pronunciation

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