Ough (orthography)

Ough is a letter sequence often seen in words in the English language. In Middle English, where the spelling arose, it was probably pronounced with a back rounded vowel and a velar fricative, e.g., [oːx] or [uːx]. It is by far the sequence of letters with the most unpredictable pronunciation, having at least six pronunciations in North American English and over ten in British English. A few of the more common are these:

// as in "though" (cf. toe).
// as in "through" (cf. true).
/ʌf/ as in "rough" (cf. ruffian).
/ɒf/ as in "cough" (cf. coffin).
/ɔː/ as in "thought" (cf. taut).
// as in "bough" (cf. to bow).

Full list of pronunciations

Pronunciation Example Comment
/ʌf/ enough, hough, rough, slough, tough Compare "huff"
/ɒf~ɔːf/ cough, trough Compare "off." Trough is pronounced /trɔːθ/(troth) by some speakers of American English.
/aʊ/ bough, drought, plough Pronounced like the word 'ow' or 'cow'
/oʊ/ dough, furlough, though Pronounced like the word 'toe' or 'no'
/ɔː/ bought, brought, ought, sought, thought, wrought Regularly used before /t/, except in drought /draʊt/. Pronounced like the vowel in word "sort" in some accents.
/uː/ brougham, slough, through Pronounced like the word 'true'
/ə/ borough, thorough Both pronounced /oʊ/ in American English as in 'toe'
/ʌp/ hiccough Variant spelling of "hiccup," though the latter form is recommended in both British and US
/ɒk/ hough More commonly spelled "hock" from the 20th century onwards
/ɒx/ lough A lake; Irish analogue of Scots "loch"

Note that "slough" has three pronunciations depending on its meaning:

Other pronunciations can be found in proper nouns, many of which are of Celtic origin (Irish, Scottish, or Welsh) rather than English. For example, ough can represent /ɔːk/ in the surname Coughlin, /juː/ in Ayscough and even /iː/ in the name Colcolough (/koʊkliː/) in Virginia.[2]

The two occurrences of ough in the English place name Loughborough are pronounced differently, resulting in Luffburruh. Additionally, three parishes of Milton KeynesWoughton /ˈwʌftən/, Loughton /ˈlaʊtən/ and Broughton /ˈbrɔːtən/—all have different pronunciations of the combination.

Tough, though, through and thorough are formed by adding another letter each time, yet none of them rhymes with another.

Though he thoroughly thought through the tough cough, drought, hiccough, lough, and hough is a sentence that uses all ten pronunciations.

Some humorous verse has been written to illustrate this seeming incongruity:

Similar combinations

A comparable group is omb, which can be pronounced in at least four ways: bomb /bɒm/ (rhymes with Tom), comb /koʊm/ (rhymes with home), sombre /ˈsɒmbə/ and tomb /tuːm/ (rhymes with gloom).

augh is visually rather similar to ough, but admits much less pronunciation variation.

Spelling reforms

Because of the unpredictability of the combination, many English spelling reformers have proposed replacing it with more phonetic combinations, some of which have caught on in varying degrees of formal and informal success. Generally, spelling reforms have been more widely accepted in the United States and less so in the Commonwealth.

In April 1984, at its yearly meeting, the Simplified Spelling Society adopted the following reform as its house style:[6][7]

Already standard

Already varyingly formal

In the UK, the word "dough" can also be prounced /dʌf/, a pronunciation remembered in the spelling in the word "duffpudding." Likewise, the word "enough" can be pronounced /enoʊ/ and the spelling "enow" is an acceptable dialect spelling. These spellings are generally considered unacceptable in most of the Commonwealth, but are standard in the United States:

Common informal

However, both of these are considered unacceptable in British English and formal American English.

Rare informal

See also


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