Ough (orthography)

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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 cow).

Full list of pronunciations[edit]

Pronunciation Example Comment
/ʌf/ enough, hough, rough, slough, tough Compare "huff"
/ɒf~ɔːf/ cough, trough Trough is pronounced /trɔːθ/ by some speakers of American English
/aʊ/ bough, drought, plough Pronounced like the word 'Ow'
/oʊ/ dough, furlough, though
/ɔː/ bought, brought, ought, sought, thought, wrought Regularly used before /t/, except in drought /draʊt/
/uː/ brougham, slough, through
/ə/ borough, thorough Both pronounced /oʊ/ in American English
/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 according to 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 [1].

The original pronunciation in all cases except hiccough was the one of lough. However the /x/ sound has disappeared from most modern English dialects. As it faded, different speakers replaced it by different near equivalents in different words (namely, /f/, /w//ʊ/, /ː/, or /k/).

The two "ough"s 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.

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

Similar combinations[edit]

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.

  • /æf/, /ɑːf/ as in "laughter"
  • /ɔː/ as in "daughter"

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 the Commonwealth.

In April 1984, at its yearly meeting, the Simplified Spelling Society adopted the following reform as its house style:[2][3]

  • Shorten 'ough' to 'u' when it is sounded as /uː/ – through→thru.
  • Shorten 'ough' to ‘o’ when it is sounded as /oʊ/ – though→tho (but doh for dough).
  • Shorten ‘ough’ to ‘ou’ when it is sounded as /aʊ/ – bough→bou, plough→plou, drought→drout.
  • Change 'ough' to ‘au’ when it is sounded as /ɔː/ – ought→aut, bought→baut, thought→thaut.
  • Change 'ough' to 'of' or 'uf' (depending on pronunciation) when there is the sound /f/ – cough→cof, enough→enuf, tough→tuf.

Already standard[edit]

  • "hiccup" instead of folk etymology "hiccough"
  • "hock" instead of "hough" (word is rare in the United States)

Already varyingly formal[edit]

These spellings are generally considered unacceptable in most of the Commonwealth, but are standard in the United States.

  • "naught" instead of "nought" (standard in the United States, although the word is only used in the phrase "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"- drive thru (American shorthand)
  • "tho" and "altho" instead of "though" and "although" (sometimes contracted as tho' and altho' )

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

Rare informal[edit]

  • "coff" instead of "cough"- Koffing
  • "laff" instead of "laugh" (British comic variant "larf") – Laffy Taffy
  • "enuff" or "enuf" instead of "enough" – Tuff 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)

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style", Houghton Mifflin Company.
  2. ^ "The Society's 1984 Proposals". Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society (February 1988).
  3. ^ "Tough Though Thought – and we call it correct spelling!". Simplified Spelling Society (1984).