Word Pronunciation: Hard and Soft 'C' and 'G' Sounds

Simple rules explain how to pronounce these consonants

Hard and Soft G and C
Kenneth Beare

In English, there are two different sounds for the consonants "c" and "g." A hard "g" sounds almost like a "k," as in the words great, good, and pig. A soft "g" sounds more like a "j," as in the words large, general, and giant. By contrast, a hard c sounds like a "k," as in the words cup, class, and fact. A soft c sounds like an "s" as in city, receive, and cell. Simple rules can help to determine whether the pronunciation of these consonants should be hard or soft.

Hard and Soft Pronunciation

As noted, the two consonant letters c and g can be pronounced with both hard and soft sounds. It can be helpful, before reviewing pronunciation rules, to look at exactly how these sounds are enunciated with c's and g's as well as with other consonants.

In general, a hard sound is like a click. It's a single sound made with one breath, as in:

  • Keep, day, play, garage

A soft sound is a long sound made with a continuing breath, as in:

  • Jeep, shine, check, zebra

General Rules

The pronunciation of c and g generally—but not always—depends upon the letter following these consonants, as per the following rules:

  • If the following letter is "e" or "y," the pronunciation is soft.
  • If the following letter is anything else—including a space—the pronunciation is hard.
  • A soft c is pronounced "s" as in cell, city, decision, receive, license, distance, recently, pronounce, juicy, and cylinder.
  • A hard c is pronounced "k"’ as in call, correct, cup, cross, class, rescue, fact, public, panic, and ache.
  • A soft g is pronounced "j" as in general, giant, gymnastic, large, energy, intelligible, and changing.
  • A hard g is pronounced "g" as in golf, pig, running, great, gum, fragrant, grasp, glut, and progress.

    Words Including Both Hard and Soft Sounds

    Complicating matters, there are a few words that include both hard and soft sounds. Some examples include:

    1. Success, circulate, clearance
    2. Bicycle, vacancy, garage
    3. Gauge, geography, gigantic, gorgeous

    In the first example, each word contains both a hard c and a soft c. In the second example, the first word, bicycle, first uses a soft c and then a hard c, but the second word, vacancy, first uses a hard c and then a soft c. The third example uses a hard and soft c, respectively, in "gauge" and "gorgeous," while the second and third words—geography and gigantic—use a soft g followed by a hard g.

    When a hard pronunciation is needed, but the letter following the "c" or "g" would make it soft, add "h" after c (as in architect) or "u" after g (as in guest). Alternatively, the following letter is doubled to achieve a hard pronunciation, as in outrigger.

    Also, when an "e" follows "g" at the end of a word, a hard g becomes a soft one, as in:

    • Sag > sage
    • Rag > rage

    Exceptions

    Nothing is easy when it comes to the hard and soft g and c, and, of course,  there are some exceptions to the previously discussed rules. These mostly involve giving hard pronunciation to words where the rule indicates a soft sound would normally be used.

    These exceptions include:

    • Gear, get, gelding, give, girl, gift, tiger, celt

    Additionally, present participles of some verbs that end with g, such as banging and ringing, use hard g's where the rules would normally indicate a soft g. Other exceptions are foreign words that have been adopted into the English language, such as gestalt and geisha.