Forming the /k/ Sound  

The consonant sound /k/ can be tricky because it can be formed from a number of different consonant lettersC, CC, K, CK, and QU can all be used to form this sound, depending where they occur in a word.

Forming the /k/ sound with C

The letter C can form either a “hard” sound (/k/) or a “soft” sound (/s/). C most often produces the hard /k/ sound when it come before the vowels A, O, and U; when it is followed by the consonants L, R, and T; or when it is the last letter of a word with two or more syllables. For example:
CA
CO
CU
CL
CR
CT
Final letter
advocate
(/ˈædvəˌkeɪt/)
call
(/l/)
cap
(/p/)
catch
(/tʃ/)
decade
(/ˈdɛkeɪd/)
pecan
(/pɪˈn/)
scale
(/skeɪl/)
acoustic
(/əˈkustɪk/)
corner
(/ˈkɔrnər/)
cover
(vər/)
coat
(/koʊt/)
economy
(/ɪˈnəmi/)
helicopter
(/ˈhɛlɪˌptər/)
scold
(/skoʊld/)
articulate
(/ɑrˈtɪkjələt/)
cushion
(ʃən/)
cute
(/kjut/)
curve
(/rv/)
focus
(/ˈfoʊs/)
peculiar
(/pɪˈkjuljər/)
sculpture
(/ˈslpʧər/)
barnacle
(/ˈbɑrnəkəl/)
climb
(/klaɪm/)
clean
(/klin/)
declare
(/dɪˈklɛr/)
incline
(/ɪnˈklaɪn/)
nuclear
(/ˈnukliər/)
uncle
(/ˈʌŋkəl/)
across
(/əˈkrɔs/)
democracy
(/dɪˈmɑkrəsi/)
crawl
(/krɔl/)
create
(/kriˈeɪt/)
lucrative
(/ˈlukrətɪv/)
microscope
(/ˈmaɪkrəˌskoʊp/)
sacrifice
(/ˈsækrəˌfaɪs/)
act
(kt/)
constructive
(/kənˈstrʌktɪv/)
election
(/ɪˈlɛən/)
galactic
(/gəˈlæktɪk/)
nocturnal
(/nɑkˈtɜrnəl/)
predict
(/prɪˈdɪkt/)
selective
(/səˈlɛktɪv/)
academic
(/ˌækəˈdɛmɪk/)
basic
(/ˈbeɪsɪk/)
frolic
(/ˈfrɑlɪkk/)
graphic
(/ˈgræfɪk/)
havoc
(/ˈhævək/)
maniac
(/ˈmeɪniˌæk/)
traffic
(/ˈtræfɪk/)

Forming the /s/ sound

“Soft C” (/s/), on the other hand, is made when C is followed by the vowels E, I, and Y, as in:
CE
CI
CY
aced
(/ˈeɪsd/)
central
(ntrəl/)
celebrate
(ləˌbreɪt/)
nice
(/naɪs/)
recent
(/ˈrint/)
advancing
(/ədˈvænŋ/)
circle
(rkəl/)
city
(ti/)
decide
(/ˌdɪˈsaɪd/)
exercise
(/ˈɛksərˌsaɪz/)
bicycle
(/ˈbaɪkəl/)
cylinder
(lɪndər/)
icy
(/ˈaɪsi/)
juicy
(/ˈʤusi/)
privacy
(/ˈpraɪvəsi/)
Because of the way C becomes “soft” when followed by E, I, and Y, we usually form the /k/ sound with either K or CK before these vowels, as we’ll see a bit later.

Forming the /k/ sound with CC

We can also form the /k/ sound in many words with the digraph CC, following most of the same rules for “hard C” that we’ve seen already—that is, CC will produce the /k/ sound when it is followed by A, O, U, L or R. (No words contain the cluster CCT—other than initialisms—and no words begin or end with CC.)
For example:
CCA
CCO
CCU
CCL
CCR
buccaneer
(/ˌbʌˈnɪr/)
desiccate
(/ˈdɛsɪkeɪt/)
impeccable
(/ɪmˈpɛbəl/)
occasion
(/əˈkeɪʒən/)
staccato
(/stəˈˌtoʊ/)
accommodate
(/əˈməˌdeɪt/)
accomplish
(/əˈmplɪʃ/)
account
(/əˈʊnt/)
broccoli
(/ˈbrɑli/)
raccoon
(/ræˈkun/)
tobacco
(/təˈbæˌkoʊ/)
accurate
(/ˈækjərɪt/)
accuse
(/əˈkjuz/)
hiccup
(/ˈhɪp/)
occupy
(/ˈɑkjəˌpaɪ/)
occur
(/əˈr/)
succumb
(/səˈm/)
acclaim
(/əˈkleɪm/)
acclimate
(/ˈækləˌmeɪt/)
ecclesiastic
(/ɪˌkliziˈæstɪk/)
occlude
(/əˈklud/)
accredit
(/əˈkrɛdɪt/)
accrue
(/əˈkru/)

Creating the /ks/ sound

If CC is followed by E or I, the first C still forms the /k/ sound, but the second C behaves like a single C and forms the /s/ sound. For example:
  • accident (/ˈæksɪdənt/)
  • accelerate (kˈsɛləˌreɪt/)
  • accent (/ˈæksɛnt/)
  • accept (kˈsɛpt/)
  • access (/ˈækˌsɛs/)
  • eccentric (kˈsɛntrɪk/)
  • occident (/ˈɑksɪˌdɛnt/)
  • succeed (/səkˈsid/)
  • succinct (/səkˈsɪŋkt/)
  • vaccine (/vækˈsin/)

Exceptions

The most common exceptions to this rule come from Italian loan words in which CC produces the /ʧ/ (“ch”) sound when followed by I or E, as in:
  • bocce (/ˈbɑʧi/)
  • cacciatore (/kæʧəˈtɔri/)
  • cappuccino (/ˌkæˌpuˈʧinoʊ/)
  • fettuccine (/ˌfɛtəˈʧini/)
  • focaccia (/foʊˈkɑʧə/)
Other exceptions come from abbreviations of words that are used in a new (often informal) way. In these, CC maintains a hard /k/ sound, despite being followed by E or I. For instance:
Word
IPA Pronunciation
Word Meaning & Origin
recce
/ˈrɛki/
Slang military abbreviation of reconnaissance, used as a noun or a verb.
soccer
/ˈsɑr/
Now the established North American term for association football, originally formed from the abbreviation of the word association (assoc.) + the suffix “-er.”
specced
/ˈspɛkt/
Past participle of spec, an informal abbreviation of specification used as a verb.
speccing
/ˈspɛŋ/
Present participle of spec, an informal abbreviation of specification used as a verb.
One last exception is the word flaccid. The original pronunciation of the word follows the standard convention we’ve already seen, with CC producing the /ks/ sound: /ˈflæksɪd/. However, it is now much more commonly pronounced /ˈflæd/, with CC producing a single soft /s/ sound.

Forming the /k/ sound with K

As a single letter, K is most often used to form the /k/ sound when it is followed by the vowels E or I (since a C before these letters would result in the /s/ sound), or at the end of one-syllable words when preceded by another consonant (other than C) or a vowel digraph. For example:
KE
KI
Final letter
bake
(/beɪk/)
canker
(/ˈkæŋkər/)
keep
(/kip/)
kennel
(/ˈkɛnəl/)
key
(/ki/)
market
(/ˈmɑrt/)
smoke
(/smoʊk/)
skeleton
(/ˈslɪtən/)
akimbo
(/əˈmˌboʊ/)
bikini
(/bɪˈkini/)
kick
(/k/)
kid
(/d/)
kiss
(/s/)
kitchen
(/ˈkɪʧən/)
skill
(/sl/)
skip
(/sp/)
ask
(/æsk/)
book
(/bʊk/)
creek
(/krik/)
oak
(/oʊk/)
park
(/pɑrk/)
risk
(/rɪsk/)
shriek
(/ʃrik/)
work
(/wɜrk/)
K also appears before the vowel Y, as in the word sky, but this more often occurs when the suffix “-y” is attached to nouns already ending in K to form adjectives, as in:
  • bulky (/ˈbʌlki/)
  • cheeky (/ˈʧiki/)
  • cranky (/ˈkræŋki/)
  • funky (/ˈfʌŋki/)
  • husky (/ˈhʌski/)
  • inky (/ˈɪŋki/)
  • leaky (/ˈliki/)
  • murky (/ˈmɜrki/)
  • risky (/ˈrɪski/)

skeptic vs. sceptic

In American English, the word skeptic (/ˈskɛptɪk/) follows the spelling patterns we’ve just seen, with K being used when followed by E. However, the original spelling of the word is sceptic (with the same pronunciation), which is the preferred spelling in British English. Because SC usually produces the /s/ sound before E and I (as in scepter or science), skeptic has become the preferred spelling in American English.
This difference in spelling carries over to its derivative forms as well:
  • skeptic→skeptical, skepticism
  • sceptic→sceptical, scepticism

Forming the /k/ sound with CK

While K is used on its own to form the /k/ sound at the ends of words when it comes after vowel digraphs or other consonants, the consonant digraph CK is used when the /k/ sound is at the end of single-syllable words following a short vowel sound. For example:
ACK
(/æk/)
ECK
(/ɛk/)
ICK
(/ɪk/)
OCK
(/ɑk/)
UCK
(/ʌk/)
back
black
crack
hack
lack
pack
snack
track
beck
check
deck
fleck
neck
peck
speck
wreck
brick
click
kick
lick
pick
quick
stick
trick
block
clock
dock
flock
knock
lock
rock
shock
buck
chuck
duck
luck
pluck
muck
stuck
truck

CK in multi-syllable words

As we’ve seen already, C is often the last letter of words with two or more syllables that end in a /k/ sound, usually coming after a short I sound (/ɪ/), as in graphic or panic.
The digraph CK most typically appears at the end of words with one syllable, but there are some common exceptions, such as attack or hammock. In multi-syllable words, it more often appears in the middle when it is followed by ET, LE, or, less commonly, O.
For example:
CK+ET
CK+LE
CK+O
bracket
(/ˈbrækɪt/)
bucket
(/ˈbʌkɪt/)
cricket
(/ˈkrɪkɪt/)
jacket
(/ˈʤækɪt/)
picket
(/ˈpɪkɪt/)
racket
(/ˈrækɪt/)
rocket
(/ˈrɑkɪt/)
ticket
(/ˈtɪkɪt/)
buckle
(/ˈbʌkəl/)
cackle
(/ˈkækəl/)
chuckle
(/ˈʧʌkəl/)
heckle
(/ˈhɛkəl/)
knuckle
(/ˈnʌkəl/)
pickle
(/ˈpɪkəl/)
shackle
(/ˈʃækəl/)
tickle
(/ˈtɪkəl/)
beckon
(/ˈbɛn/)
gecko
(/ˈgɛkoʊ/)
hickory
(/ˈhɪrɪ/)
reckon
(/ˈrɛn/)
(Note that this list does not include compound words or those formed by attaching suffixes to the end of single-syllable words.)

Adding K to verbs ending in C

Most verbs do not end in a C after a vowel; they usually have a K at the end to make the /k/ sound more definitive. A few do have a final C, though, so to avoid a spelling that might indicate a “soft C” sound (/s/), we add a K before suffixes beginning with E, I, or Y. For example:
  • frolic→frolicked, frolicker, frolicking
  • mimic→mimicked, mimicker, mimicking
  • panic→panicked, panicking, panicky
  • picnic→picnicked, picnicker, picnicking
  • traffic→trafficked, trafficker, trafficking
Note that we don’t do this when we attach consonant suffixes or vowel suffixes that begin with A:
  • frolic→frolics, frolicsome
  • mimic→mimical, mimicry, mimics
  • panic→panics
  • picnic→picnics
  • traffic→trafficable, traffics

Don’t add K when attaching the suffix “-ize”

When we make verbs from other parts of speech that end in C by attaching the suffix “-ize,” we don’t add a K. Instead, C remains on its own, but its pronunciation changes from the /k/ sound to the /s/ sound. For example:
  • critic (/ˈkrɪtɪk/)→criticize (/ˈkrɪtɪˌsaɪz/)
  • italic (/ɪˈtælɪk/)→italicize (/ɪˈtælɪˌsaɪz/)
  • politic (/ˈpɑləˌtɪk/)→politicize (/pəˈlɪtɪˌsaɪz/)
  • public (/ˈpʌblɪk/)→publicize (/ˈpʌblɪˌsaɪz/)
  • mythic (/ˈmɪθɪk/)→mythicize (/ˈmɪθəˌsaɪz/)
  • romantic (/roʊˈmæntɪk/)→romanticize (/roʊˈmæntəˌsaɪz/)

Forming the /k/ sound with QU

Other than in certain foreign loanwords, the consonant Q is always followed by the letter U, and the two letters together usually form the sound /kw/. If the sound /kw/ occurs within a single syllable, and the word is not a compound, it will almost always be spelled QU. For example:
  • equipment (ˈkwɪpmənt/)
  • eloquence (/ˈɛləkwəns/)
  • inquire (/ɪnˈkwaɪər/)
  • queen (/kwin/)
  • quiet (/ˈkwaɪət/)
  • quick (/kwɪk/)
  • request (/rɪˈkwɛst/)
  • require (/rɪˈkwɛst/)
  • square (/skwɛər/)
  • squeeze (/skwiz/)
QU does not always result in a /kw/ sound, though; sometimes it is simply a hard /k/. This most often occurs when QU is followed by a silent E at the end of a word, as in:
  • antique (/ænˈtik/)
  • baroque (/bəˈroʊk/)
  • boutique (/buˈtik/)
  • critique (/krɪˈtik/)
  • grotesque (/groʊˈtɛsk/)
  • opaque (/oʊˈpeɪk/)
  • picturesque (/ˈpɪkʧərəsk/)
  • physique (/fɪˈzik/)
  • technique (/tɛkˈnik/)
  • unique (/juˈnik/)
Less commonly, QU forms the /k/ sound in the middle of a word when followed by a vowel + R or T. For instance:
  • briquette (/brɪˈkɛt/)
  • bouquet (/buˈkeɪ/; T is silent)
  • conquer (/ˈkɑŋkər/)
  • etiquette (/ˈɛtɪkɪt/)
  • lacquer (/ˈlækər/)
  • liquor (/ˈlɪkər/)
  • masquerade (/ˌmæskəˈreɪd/)
  • mosquito (/məsˈkitoʊ/)
  • tourniquet (/ˈtɜrnɪkɪt/)
Quiz

1. When is the letter C generally not able to form the /k/ sound?





2. In which of the following words is CC pronounced /ks/?





3. Which ending correctly completes the following word?
“guideboo_”





4. When do we add K to words ending in C?








5. Which of the following words makes the sound /kw/?





6. When does CK typically appear at the end of a word? (Choose the answer that is most correct.)








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