Ough (orthography)

Ough is a letter sequence often seen in words in the English language. In Middle English, where the spelling arose, it was pronounced with a back rounded vowel and a velar fricative (e.g., [oːx], [oːɣ], [uːx], or [uːɣ]). Currently the sequence is ambiguous, having at least eight pronunciations in North American English and nine in British English; its pronunciation depends entirely on its placement in a given word, with the most common being:

  • // 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 [the gesture])

List of pronunciations

Pronunciation Examples Note
/ʌf/ Brough, chough, enough, hough, Hough, rough, shough, slough (as verb), sough, tough Rhymes with puff. Sough is also pronounced /s/.
/ɒf/ cough, trough Rhymes with off. Trough is pronounced /trɔːθ/ (troth) by some speakers of American English, and a baker's trough is also pronounced /tr/.[1]
// bough, doughty, drought, plough, Slough (as place name), sough Rhymes with how, cow. Sough is also pronounced /sʌf/.
// although, dough, furlough, though Rhymes with toe, no.
/ɔː/ bought, brought, dreadnought, fought, ought, sought, thought, wrought Regularly so used before /t/, except in drought /drt/ and doughty /ˈdti/. Rhymes with caught. In American English, this is often /ɒ/ or /ɑː/.
// brougham, slough (as noun), through Rhymes with true.
/ə/ borough, thorough, Willoughby Pronounced // in American English, except when destressed by a following syllable, as in thoroughly and Willoughby.
/əp/, /ʌp/ hiccough Variant spelling of more common hiccup.
/əf/ Greenough Pronounced /ˈɡrɛnəf/ as the name of a river in Western Australia. As a surname, it is usually pronounced /ˈɡrn/.
/ɒk/ Clough, hough, lough, turlough Hough more commonly spelled hock from the 20th century onwards. Lough and (tur)lough are also pronounced /lɒx/.
/ɒx/ lough, turlough A lake; Irish cognate of Scots loch. Both also pronounced /lɒk/.

"Slough" has three pronunciations depending on its meaning:

  • /sl/ (as in, "slogging through a slough of mud")[2]
  • /slʌf/ (as in "to slough off", meaning to shed off)
  • /sl/ the town of Slough in the Thames Valley of England

An example sentence using the nine pronunciations commonly found in modern usage (and excluding hough, which is now a rarely-used spelling) is, "The wind was rough along the lough as the ploughman fought through the snow, and though he hiccoughed and coughed, his work was thorough."

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 /ɒk/ in the surname Coughlin, /j/ in Ayscough,[3] and /i/ in the name Colcolough (/ˈkkli/) in Virginia.[4]

The two occurrences of ough in the English place name Loughborough are pronounced differently, resulting in /ˈlʌfbərə/. Additionally, three parishes of Milton KeynesWoughton /ˈwʌftən/, Loughton /ˈltən/ 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 rhyme.

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

  • "A rough-coated, dough-faced ploughman strode, coughing and hiccoughing, thoughtfully through the streets of Scarborough."[5]
  • "O-U-G-H" by Charles Battell Loomis[6]
  • "Ough, a Phonetic Fantasy" by William Thomas Goodge[7]
  • "I take it you already know" by T. S. Watt[8]
  • "Enough Is Enough" by Rosemary Chen[9]

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 other English-speaking areas. One problem is that a pronunciation with the velar fricative is still found locally in parts of North-East Scotland, where, for example, trough is pronounced /trɔːx/.

In April 1984, at its yearly meeting, the Simplified Spelling Society adopted the following reform as its house style:[10][11]

  • Shorten ough to u when it is sounded as //: throughthru.
  • Shorten ough to o when it is sounded as //: thoughtho (but doh for dough).
  • Shorten ough to ou when it is sounded as //: boughbou, ploughplou, droughtdrout.
  • Change ough to au when it is sounded as /ɔː/: oughtaut, boughtbaut, thoughtthaut.
  • Change ough to of or uf (depending on pronunciation) when there is the sound /f/: coughcof, enoughenuf, toughtuf.

Already standard

  • hiccup instead of folk etymology hiccough
  • hock instead of hough (word is rare in the United States)
  • plow instead of plough (standard in American English)

In early colonial America, John Smith used the spelling raugroughcum for the animal we know today as the raccoon. This was a new animal to the explorers and, alongside the tribal name Quiyoughcohannock, shows that the ough combination was still being used to coin new words in early colonial America.

Already varyingly formal

In the UK, the word dough can also be pronounced /dʌf/, a pronunciation remembered in the spelling in the word duffpudding. Likewise, the word enough can be pronounced /ɪˈn/ or /ɪˈn/ and the spelling enow is an acceptable dialect or poetic spelling (e.g. "And Wilderness is Paradise enow.").

The following spellings are generally considered unacceptable in other areas, but are standard in the United States:

  • naught instead of nought (standard in the United States, although the word is only used in phrases such as "all for naught") – some archaic uses of nought have been replaced with not
  • plow instead of plough (standard in the United States and Canada, with plough being occasionally used to refer to the horsedrawn variety)
  • slew or sluff instead of the two corresponding pronunciations of slough (the former is very common in the United States, the latter much less so, with slough being retained in most cases)
  • donut instead of doughnut

Common informal

  • thru instead of through: it is a common abbreviated spelling in the US and standard on road signs, where it conserves space and is quicker to read: e.g., "drive thru" for drive-through and "thru traffic" for "through traffic"[12]
  • tho and altho instead of though and although (sometimes contracted as tho' and altho')
  • 'nuff instead of enough

However, all of these are considered unacceptable in written British English and formal American English, with the exception of in the most casual and informal forms of textual conversation.

Rare informal

  • coff instead of coughKoffing
  • laff instead of laugh (British comic variant larf) – Laffy Taffy
  • enuff or enuf instead of enoughTuff Enuff
  • tuff instead of tough – Tuff Enuff, Tuff Shed
  • ruff instead of rough (seldom used because it often refers to an onomatopoeia for a dog's bark)

Comparable combinations

augh is orthographically rather similar to ough, but admits much less pronunciation variation:

  • /ɔː, ɒ, ɑː/ as in caught, fraught, daughter, slaughter
  • /æf, ɑːf/ as in laugh, draught, laughter

The similar ow yields at least five standard pronunciations:

  • // as in cow, now, bow (stoop), sow (pig), row (fight), glower (glare), town, owl, etc.
  • // as in crow, know, bow (weapon), sow (plant), row (bank), lower (let down), own, bowl, etc.
  • /ɒ/ as in knowledge /ˈnɒlɪ/, acknowledge /əkˈnɒlɪ/
  • // as in bowie knife /ˈbi/
  • /ɔː/ as in bowdlerize /ˈbɔːdlərz/ (also /ˈbd-/ and /ˈbd-/)

Dialectal forms also render pronunciations such as winder /ˈwɪndər/, yeller /ˈjɛlər/ for window /ˈwɪnd/, yellow /ˈjɛl/, and fella /ˈfɛlə/, tomorra /təˈmɒrə/ for fellow /ˈfɛl/, tomorrow /təˈmɒr/.

A comparable group is omb, which differs however in that, unlike ough, it does not ever represent a single phoneme. omb can be pronounced in at least five ways:

  • /ɒm, ɑːm/ as in bomb /bɒm/ (rhymes with Tom)
  • /m/ as in comb /km/, clomb /klm/ (rhymes with home)
  • /m/ as in tomb /tm/, womb /wm/ (rhymes with gloom)
  • /ʌm/ as in aplomb /əˈplʌm/ (rhymes with gum)
  • /əm/ as in buncombe /ˈbʌŋkəm/, coxcombry /ˈkɒkskəmri/

When a syllable is added after the omb, the b is often (but not always) pronounced, resulting in a total of at least eight pronunciations of omb:

  • /ɒm.b/ as in somber (UK sombre) /ˈsɒm.bər/, rhombus /ˈrɒm.bəs/, zombie /ˈzɒm.bi/, combat /ˈkɒm.bæt/, wombat /ˈwɒm.bæt/, etc.
  • /ʌm.b/ as in Colombia /kəˈlʌm.biə/
  • /əm.b/ as in combine /kəmˈbn/

—but not, for example, in bomber, comber, entombing, etc.

The group oth also has a wide variety of pronunciations, in part because of the two phonemes (/θ/ and /ð/) represented in English th. Here are seven different pronunciations:

  • /θ/ as in loth, lothario, quoth, sloth (UK), troth
  • /ɒθ, ɔːθ, ɑːθ/ as in apothecary, bothy, broth, brothel, cloth, froth, Goth, moth, sloth (US), wroth
  • /ʌθ/ as in nothing
  • /əθ/ as in behemoth, mammoth
  • /ð/ as in betroth, clothe
  • /ɒð, ɑːð/ as in bother
  • /ʌð/ as in another, brother, mother, other, smother

The group ong has at least nine pronunciations, though unlike with ough or omb, context often suggests the correct pronunciation:

  • /ɔːŋ, ɒŋ, ɑːŋ/ as in long, prong, song, strong, thong, tong, wrong
  • /ɔːŋ.ɡ, ɒŋ.ɡ, ɑːŋ.ɡ/ as in longer, Mongol, congress
  • /ɔːn, ɒn, ɑːn/ as in congee, longevity, longitude, pongee
  • /ʌŋ/ as in among, tongue
  • /ʌŋ.ɡ/ as in humongous, monger, mongrel
  • /ʌn/ as in allonge, sponge
  • /ən.ɡ/ as in congratulate
  • /ən./ as in congeal, congest
  • /ɒn.ɡ, ɑːn.ɡ/ as in mongoose

See also


  1. "Trough". Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
  2. "The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style", Houghton Mifflin Company.
  3. Jones, Daniel (2011). Roach, Peter; Setter, Jane; Esling, John (eds.). Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (18th ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-15255-6.
  4. Bolton, H. Carrington (1891). "The Pronunciation of Folk-Names in South Carolina". The Journal of American Folklore. 4 (14): 270–272. doi:10.2307/534017. JSTOR 534017.
  5. "A Variable Symbol". Punch, or the London Charivari. 68. 16 January 1875.
  6. O-U-G-H
  7. Ough, a Phonetic Fantasy
  8. Watt, T. S. (21 June 1954), "Brush Up Your English", The Guardian. Reprinted in Fromkin, Victoria; Rodman, Robert; Hyams, Nina (2014), An Introduction to Language (10th ed.), Wadsworth, p. 220, ISBN 978-1-133-31068-6.
  9. Roberts, Alan (28 March 2004). ""ough" poem". Retrieved August 27, 2017.
  10. "The Society's 1984 Proposals". Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society (February 1988).
  11. "Tough Though Thought – and we call it correct spelling!" Archived 2011-04-16 at the Wayback Machine. Simplified Spelling Society (1984).
  12. Example: "ROAD CLOSED TO THRU TRAFFIC", sign R11-4, Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices
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