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 ten in British English (not counting place names). 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[edit]

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:

  • "O-U-G-H" by Charles Battell Loomis[3]
  • "Ough, a Phonetic Fantasy" by William Thomas Goodge[4]
  • "I take it you already know", unattributed[5]
  • Geisel, Theodor (1987). Richard Marschall, ed. The Tough Coughs as He Ploughs the Dough: Early Writings and Cartoons by Dr. Seuss. New York: Morrow/Remco Worldservice Books. ISBN 0-688-06548-1. 

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:[6][7]

  • 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)
  • "plow" instead of "plough" (standard in American English)

Already varyingly formal[edit]

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 or poetic spelling (e.g., “And Wilderness is Paradise enow.”).

The following 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 for drive-through and thru traffic for "through traffic"[8] (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]


  1. ^ "The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style", Houghton Mifflin Company.
  2. ^ JSTOR 534017
  3. ^ O-U-G-H
  4. ^ Ough, a Phonetic Fantasy
  5. ^ I take it you already know
  6. ^ "The Society's 1984 Proposals". Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society (February 1988).
  7. ^ "Tough Though Thought – and we call it correct spelling!". Simplified Spelling Society (1984).
  8. ^ Example: "ROAD CLOSED TO THRU TRAFFIC", sign R11-4, Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices