Grammar Tips (#1): The problem with ç

The c-cedilla (ç) – [o] cê-cedilha ou [o] cê cedilhado in Portuguese – is usually a tricky letter to get a grasp on early on, unless you’re a speaker of French, Catalan and Occitan which use it in much the same way as Portuguese (albeit with certain differences).

In any case, here are the rules governing ç in Portuguese:

#1: It’s a variant of the word c, meaning it’s not a letter in its own right.

That’s an important detail for two reasons:

  1. It makes you understand the rules regarding its usage better if you just think of it as a variant of c;
  2. When you’re trying to find a word in a dictionary, words with ç are ordered together with words with c.

#2: It’s used only before a, o, and u, to turn a hard /k/ sound into a soft /s/ sound.

Note: all of the following pronunciations are based on the standard EP spoken in Lisbon

Before a, o, and u (and consonants), the letter c is pronounced with a hard /k/ sound (the c in cat): 

  • [a] cama (bed): kˈɐ.mɐ
  • [a] colina (hillside): ku.lˈi.nɐ
  • [o] caldo (broth): kˈaɫ.du
  • [o] porco (pig): pˈoɾ.ku
  • ficar (to stay): fi.kˈaɾ
  • encravar (to get something stuck/ to jam): ẽ.kɾɐ.vˈaɾ

Before e and i, it’s pronounced with a soft /s/ sound (the c in city):

  • [a] cidade (city):  si.dˈa.dɨ
  • [a] cereja (cherry):  sɨ.ɾˈɐ.ʒɐ
  • [a] polícia (police):  pu.lˈi.s
  • inocente (innocent):ˈẽ.tɨ

Since C already has a soft /s/ sound before e and i, Ç is only used before vowels that would give C a hard /k/ sound without the cedilla, i.e., the first group (a, o, u):

  • [a] caça (hunt, hunting) / [o] caça (fighter plane):  kˈa.sɐ
    • compare with [a] caca (poo, dropping):  kˈa.kɐ
  • [o] braço (arm): IPA bɾˈ
    • compare with fraco (weak):  fɾˈa.ku; or [a] broca (drill, borer):  bɾˈɔ.kɐ

P.S. Just in case you’re wondering, the digraph qu is used to fill the gap between the two sets, i.e., it’s used before and to achieve a hard /k/ sound.

  • [o] queijo (cheese):  kˈɐj.ʒu
  • [a] quinta (farm):  kˈĩ.tɐ

#3: It’s never used at the beginning or at the very end of a word.

This rule sets it apart from the three languages I mentioned earlier, who can have ç begin a word (FR ça, OCC çò) or end one (CAT / OCC braç, “arm”).

This also means that any word that starts with with a /s/ sound followed by an a, o, or u sound is to be spelled with an s instead (since c without the cedilla + those vowels = /k/, and ç at the beginning of a word – or ss, by the way – is not an option):

  • [o] sábado (Saturday):  sˈa.bɐ.du
  • [o/a] soldado (soldier):  soɫ.dˈa.du
  • [a] subida (rise/climb):  su.bˈi.dɐ
  • [a] secção (section):  sɛk.sˈɐ̃w

#4: Inside a word, it’s usually hard to tell whether a /s/ sound before a, o, and u is spelled ç or ss. You’ll just have to learn those by heart.

This may seem hard at first, but words from the same family follow the same rule, so it gets slightly easier with time. For example, the verb assar (to roast) gives us [o] assado (roast), [a] assadeira / [o] assador (roasting tray/pan); [o/a] assador/a (person who roasts things for a living, like chicken or chestnuts to sell).

On the other hand, from [o] braço (“arm”, see above), we get the words abraçar (to hug), [o] abraço (hug); [o] antebraço (forearm), [a] braçadeira (armband), [a] braçada (swimming arm stroke), etc.

Please make sure you make the appropriate ajustments when the relevant /s/ syllable of a word from a ç family ends up before e or i; for example, esbracejar/bracejar (to wave one’s arms about) have a plain c (where the others have ç) because an e follows, therefore rendering ç redundant (and grammatically wrong).


7 thoughts on “Grammar Tips (#1): The problem with ç

  1. João Duarte March 29, 2016 / 10:26 pm

    Excellent post!
    This reminds me of a common mistake Portuguese people sometimes do; since “França” (France) uses cedilha, sometimes people write “francês” (Frenchman) or “francesa” (Frenchwoman) with cedilha, by mistake. (“françês” or “françesa”). This is a dangerous mistake even for Portuguese people! :D
    As Luís explained, before an “e” there is no need for cedilha. :)

    Liked by 2 people

    • edmeyr April 2, 2016 / 4:22 pm

      Only in the world of Portuguese grammar would the misuse of “ç” be considered a “dangerous” mistake!

      Liked by 2 people

      • luisdomingos April 2, 2016 / 4:58 pm

        We don’t have spelling bees (at least not with the importance they have in the US), but knowing how to write words properly is highly valued in schools; all elementary school students dread [o] ditado, which is a dictation exercise in which a teacher carefully reads a text and children have to write the words being spoken without making mistakes; it’s the kind of test made for the dictionary aficionados among 8-10 year olds!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. edmeyr April 1, 2016 / 6:42 pm

    Very interesting, Luís, to see a different phonetic alphabet from what I am used to seeing in English (IPA). Do you have a site where I access this one?

    Liked by 2 people

    • luisdomingos April 1, 2016 / 7:36 pm

      It’s not entirely different, there are just a few symbols who are treated differently (and this one marks syllables with full stops and the emphasis, ‘, only before a stressed vowel, not the whole syllable like in IPA).

      I took these examples from Portal da Língua Portuguesa; all you need to do is enter a word on the upper right search option and click in a given word on the list that follows. A good chunk of them then displays a phonetic guide from different variants of Portuguese on the lower right corner of the screen (e.g. “abraço”).

      If you’re looking for more recognizable, IPA-like displays, you can also use this online dictionary ( and well, use it like a normal dictionary – just search for a word and it will show up together with its phonetic transcript and definition (: Since the website is owned by Porto Editora, I assume the phonetic transcript is based on standard EP, which is the variant of the language as spoken between in the region between Lisbon and Coimbra.


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