Everything you need to know about the French cedilla

A cedilla (cédille in French) is a small hook that goes beneath a letter. In some languages, a cedilla can be used with several letters, but in French, the cedilla is only used with the letter “c”.

In French, when a cedilla is beneath the letter “c”, this indicates that the sound is soft, like an “s”, instead of hard, like a “k”.

Let’s find out why cedillas are necessary in French, and the rules for using them.

What does a cedilla look like?

A narrow tube of lipstick sits above a curve made from the red lipstick it contains. The shape of the two is similar to the shape of a cedilla

A cedilla looks like a little hook that goes beneath a letter. In French, a cedilla (cédille) is sometimes used with the letter “c”, like so: ç or Ç. This is called c cédille (cedilla “c”).

What does a cedilla do?

In French, a cedilla indicates that a “c” sound is soft (like “s”) rather than  hard (like “k”).

For instance, if there wasn’t a cedilla in the word français, it would be pronounced with a hard “c”, sounding like “frankay”.  If there wasn’t a cedilla in the word garçon, it would be pronounced with a hard “c”, sounding like “garkon”.

What else indicates a soft “c” sound in French?

In French, if a “c” is followed by certain vowels, it’s typically pronounced with a soft sound (like the letter “s”). These letters are: e, i, and typically y.

You can see examples of this in words like centre, sourcil, and recyclage – not to mention in the word cédille itself!

But what if a “c”needs to be pronounced as a soft “c” but it’s not followed by one of those letters? That’s where the cedilla comes in.

Why does the French language need cedillas?

The façade of an elegant Parisian apartment building in Haussmannian style.
une façade

There are two main reasons why the cedilla is used in French:

For aesthetic or traditional reasons.

For instance, the soft “c” sound in words like français and garçon goes back to these terms’ origins and the French want to preserve them – or at the very least, they’ve gotten used to pronouncing them with a soft “c” sound and want to continue doing it that way.

To maintain a soft “c” sound in verb conjugations.

For instance, commencer has a soft “c” sound in its infinitive as well as many of its conjugations. This is because the “c” is usually followed by an “e” or “i”. But sometimes, the “c” is followed by a letter that doesn’t automatically make it soft. For example, the present-tense conjugation for nous would be commencons, pronounced with a hard “c”, like “commenkons”. And so, the cedilla is used to maintain the sound of the verb stem: commençons.

What if I forget to use a cedilla?

One of the best “cheats” for French learners is that when we speak, no one sees it in writing. So if you forget a cedilla when you talk, but you know that the word is pronounced with a soft “c”, no harm done.

But what if you forget to write a cedilla?

Fortunately, it’s most likely that the person you’re writing to will understand anyway. After all, many of these words are very familiar and they’d just assume you’d made a mistake.

In some cases, it may even go unnoticed. For instance, there’s some debate about using diacritical marks in French informal writing. That’s why you might not always see an accent over a capital “E”, even in something like an advertisement. It’s less common to omit a cedilla, but you may come across a common phrase like Ça va written, Ca va, if a person is sending a quick text message, for instance.

That said, in formal and academic writing, it is important to always include the cedilla.

And keep in mind that leaving out the cedilla in informal writing may be okay when others read your writing, but it may not end up so great for you. Neglect cedillas all the time and you may forget to use them when you need to.

So it’s best to just get used to using the cedilla and including it in your French writing.

Some common French words with cedillas

A little boy in a yellow coat and rain boots splashes in a puddle.
un garçon

Here’s a list of some common French words that have cedillas. The cedilla may seem like a strange concept, depending on your native language, but as you read this list you’ll probably realize that you’ve been reading and using it in French all along!

If you want to see some more, here’s a very long list of other French words with a c cédille.

Do you have a favorite French word with a c cédille? Feel free to share it in the comments!

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.