The spelling ough

14 Replies

The spelling "ough" can be pronounced eight different ways in English.

Don't panic, there aren't many words, and some of them are so arcane I usually don't bother teaching them. But let's be fairly comprehensive here.

There are five different single sounds, and three sound combinations.

  • "aw" as in bought, brought, fought, nought, ought, sought, thought and wrought iron.
  • "ou" as in when the bough or the drought breaks, and the UK spelling of plough (in the US regularised to plow), as well as doughty old characters, the soughing wind and a deep slough of depression.
  • "oh" as in dough, furlough and though, as well as doughnut and although, if you want to count them separately.
  • "ooh" as in through.
  • "uh" as in thorough and borough, and names like Gainsborough, Marlborough, Peterborough and Scarborough.
  • "u" plus "f" as in rough, tough and enough, plus a snake sloughing off its skin.
  • "o" plus "f"* as in cough, former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and a cattle trough.
  • "u" plus "p" in hiccough, though nowadays many people seem to spell this hiccup.

That's it, as far as I know. Not so terrible after all.

* The "gh" spelling of the sound "f" is also used in the word "laugh", and goes after a vowel. Before a vowel, "gh" usually represents the sound "g" as in "Afghan", "ghost", "spaghetti" and "yoghurt".


14 responses to “The spelling ough”

  1. Mayur says:

    I’m glad I found your site and this post. I have 4 kids who aren’t all that interested in reading…ages 10, 9, 6, & 5. I do a lot of reading aloud and I am finally learning that this is okay. I take some solace in the fact that even though I could read & loved to write, I hated reading. I did not learn to enjoy reading until I was 26. So, there is hope!

  2. Quintin says:

    Here is an oddball for you. The largest lake in the British Isles is Lough Neagh. It is pronounced ‘Lock Nay’.

    • alison says:

      Ah, ancient Gaelic place names, they add a whole extra level of complexity. Actually place names in general often have funny spellings unlike other English words, as they are often borrowings from other languages. I’m not sure where you live, but in Australia we have place names like Kata Tjuta, Waaia, Xantippe, Wangkatjunka and Wunghnu, and I went to school in a town called Warrnambool, after growing up near Laang and Nullawarre. I had to draw the line somewhere so I haven’t typically tried to put place names into these spelling lists, but it would be great if schools could include local place names in their spelling lists.

      • David says:

        If you consider “loch” a word, not merely a part of a place name, it seems “lough” should get the same treatment. Then we have nine pronunciations of “ough”!

        • alison says:

          Ah, in Scotland, possibly. But I’m in Australia and my Macquarie Dictionary doesn’t list “lough”, so I didn’t include it in my lists. I had to draw the line somewhere!

  3. Carsten says:

    What about “drought beer”? That would be “a” plus “f”, right?

  4. James says:

    I get a total of NINE. It’s an unusual one but, besides “Lough” there is also the word “Hough”, which is pronounced “HOCK”.
    I am a native English speaker, and a writer. The English language is evil. Sorry, non-native speakers. I feel your pain.

  5. Irene says:

    There are definitely some dialect differences at play here. I was initially puzzled by thorough getting a separate listing, as all the words listed as pronounced as “uh” are pronounced as “oh” for me. (Also, for me sough rhymes with rough.)

  6. Nathan Jones says:

    I’d also add Loughor, in South Wales, which is more of a u‚ch‘ sound so l-u‘ch‘or. So i think that’s 10 including lough!

  7. Marie says:

    As others have said there are some Lough to add if you are based in Britain but many British people will be unaware of that one. I’d also say hiccough is still the normal spelling in Britain.

    But you’re right, place names are odd. One I find hilarious is Loughborough which has two different pronounciations of ough in one word.

    To be fair it’s a running joke that Americans can never pronounce British placenames so nobody who is a non native English speaker should worry. I never realised when I was younger that so many other languages have consistent pronunciation whereas English doesn’t. It was only when my son was learning phonics and it seemed like every word was an exception that I realised what a hard time people must have learning this language.

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