Ough (orthography)

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Ough is a four-letter sequence, a tetragraph, used in English orthography and notorious for its unpredictable pronunciation.[1] It has at least eight pronunciations in North American English and nine in British English, and no discernible patterns exist for choosing among them.[1]


In Middle English, ough was regularly pronounced with a back rounded vowel and a velar fricative (e.g., [oːx], [oːɣ], [uːx] or [uːɣ]).[citation needed]

Most common pronunciations[edit]

  • // as in though (cf. toe).
  • // as in through (cf. true).
  • /ʌf/ as in rough (cf. ruffian).
  • /ɒf/ or /ɔːf/ as in cough (cf. coffin).
  • /ɔː/ as in thought (cf. taut).
  • // as in bough (cf. cow)

List of pronunciations[edit]

Pronunciation Examples Note
/ʌf/ Brough, chough, enough, Hough, rough, slough (see below), sough, tough Rhymes with puff, stuff. Sough is also pronounced /s/.
/ɒf/ cough, Gough, trough Rhymes with off, scoff. Trough is pronounced /trɔːθ/ (troth) by some speakers of American English, and a baker's trough is also pronounced /tr/.[2]
// bough, doughty, drought, plough, slough (see below), Slough, sough Rhymes with cow, how. Sough is also pronounced /sʌf/.
// although, dough, furlough, though Rhymes with no, toe.
/ɔː/ bought, brought, dreadnought, fought, nought, ought, sought, thought, wrought Rhymes with caught, taught. Regularly so used before /t/, except in drought /drt/ and doughty /ˈdti/. In dialects exhibiting the cot-caught merger, this is realized as /ɒ/ or /ɑː/.
// brougham, slough (see below), through Rhymes with true, woo.
/ə/ borough, Poughkeepsie, thorough, Willoughby Pronounced // in American English, thus rhyming with burrow and furrow, except when reduced by a following syllable in many dialects, as in Poughkeepsie, thoroughly or Willoughby.
/ʌp/, /əp/ hiccough Variant spelling of the more common hiccup.
/əf/ Greenough Pronounced /ˈɡrɛnəf/ as the name of a river in Western Australia. As a surname, usually pronounced /ˈɡrn/, like although and dough.
/ɒk/ Clough, hough, lough, turlough Rhymes with cock, lock. Hough more commonly spelled hock from the 20th century onwards. Lough (an Irish cognate of Scots loch) and turlough are also pronounced /lɒx/.
/ɒx/ lough, turlough Rhymes with Scots loch. Lough and turlough are also pronounced /lɒk/.

Slough has three pronunciations, depending on its meaning:

  • /slʌf/ (for the noun meaning a skin shed by an animal, and for the verb derived from it)
  • /sl/ (for the noun meaning a muddy area, and for the verb derived from it. Also for the noun meaning a state of depression)
  • /sl/ (alternative American pronunciation for the noun meaning a muddy area, and for the verb derived from it)[3]

The town of Slough in the Thames Valley of England is /sl/.

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."

Another, slightly shorter example would be, "The rough, dough-faced ploughman fought through the borough to the lough, hiccoughing and coughing."

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,[4] and /i/ in the name Colcolough (/ˈkkli/) in the United States.[5]

The two occurrences of ⟨ough⟩ in the English place name Loughborough are pronounced differently, resulting in /ˈlʌfbərə/. Additionally, three parishes of Milton KeynesWoughton /ˈwʊftən/, 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 verses have been written to illustrate this seeming incongruity:

  • "A rough-coated, dough-faced ploughman strode, coughing and hiccoughing, thoughtfully through the streets of Scarborough."[6]
  • "O-U-G-H" by Charles Battell Loomis[7]
  • "Ough, a Phonetic Fantasy" by William Thomas Goodge[8]
  • "I take it you already know" by T. S. Watt[9]
  • "Enough Is Enough" by Rosemary Chen[10]

Spelling reforms[edit]

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:[11][12]

  • 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, droughtdrout, ploughplou.
  • Change ⟨ough⟩ to ⟨au⟩ when it is sounded as /ɔː/: boughtbaut, oughtaut, thoughtthaut.
  • Change ⟨ough⟩ to ⟨of⟩ when it is sounded as /ɒf/: coughcof.
  • Change ⟨ough⟩ to ⟨uf⟩ when it is sounded as /ʌf/: enoughenuf, toughtuf.

Already standard[edit]

  • hiccup instead of the folk etymology hiccough
  • hock instead of hough (this 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 that is today known 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. Another placename is Youghiogheny, which begins with /ˈjɒk/.

Already varyingly formal[edit]

In the UK, the word dough can also be pronounced /dʌf/, a pronunciation remembered in the spelling of 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[edit]

  • 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"[13]
  • 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, except in the most casual and informal forms of textual conversation.

Rare informal[edit]

  • 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[edit]

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

The similar ⟨ow⟩ yields at least four standard pronunciations, although one is only found in a word derived from a proper name:

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

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:

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⟩:

—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 by English ⟨th⟩. Here are seven different pronunciations:

  • /θ/ as in both, loth, lothario, quoth, sloth (UK), troth
  • /ɒθ, ɔːθ/ as in apothecary, broth, brothel, cloth, froth, Goth, hypothesis, moth, sloth (US)
  • /ʌθ/ as in nothing
  • /əθ/ as in behemoth, mammoth
  • /ð/ as in betroth
  • /ɒð/ 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:


Among the smaller villages and hamlets in Milton Keynes (England) are three – Broughton, Loughton and Woughton on the Green – that are of note in that their names each use a different pronunciation[a] of the 'ough' letter sequence.[14][15]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b Adam Brown, Understanding and Teaching English Spelling: A Strategic Guide, 2018, ISBN 1138082678, p. 214
  2. ^ "trough". Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
  3. ^ "The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style", Houghton Mifflin Company.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ "A Variable Symbol". Punch, or the London Charivari. 68. 16 January 1875.
  7. ^ O-U-G-H
  8. ^ Ough, a Phonetic Fantasy
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ Roberts, Alan (28 March 2004). ""ough" poem". Archived from the original on 2017-08-27. Retrieved August 27, 2017.
  11. ^ "The Society's 1984 Proposals". Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society (February 1988).
  12. ^ "Tough Though Thought – and we call it correct spelling!" Archived 2011-04-16 at the Wayback Machine. Simplified Spelling Society (1984).
  13. ^ Example: "ROAD CLOSED TO THRU TRAFFIC", sign R11-4, Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices
  14. ^ Morice, Dave (2005). "Kickshaws". Butler University. p. 228. Archived from the original on 1 November 2018. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  15. ^ Murrer, Sally (13 June 2022). "The 6 most mispronounced Milton Keynes place names people are always getting wrong". Milton Keynes Citizen. Retrieved 14 June 2022.