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]


This section needs expansion with: details on the sound changes that occurred after Middle English to the present day. You can help by adding to it. Relevant discussion may be found on the talk page. (May 2022)

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]

List of pronunciations

Pronunciation Examples Note
/ʌf/ Brough, chough, clough, enough, Hough, rough, shough, slough (see below), sough, tough Rhymes with puff, stuff. Clough and sough are also pronounced //.
/ɒf/ or /ɔːf/ 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/ in that variety.[2]
// bough, clough, doughty, drought, plough, slough (see below), Slough, sough Rhymes with cow, how. Clough and sough are also pronounced /ʌf/. Plough is generally spelled plow in American English.
// although, brougham, dough, furlough, though Rhymes with no, toe. Brougham is also pronounced //.
/ɔː/ bought, brought, fought, nought, ought, sought, thought, wrought Rhymes with caught, taught. Regularly so used before /t/, except in doughty /ˈdti/ and drought /drt/. Realized as /ɒ/ or /ɑː/ in dialects exhibiting the cot-caught merger.
// brougham, slough (see below), through Rhymes with true, woo. Brougham is also pronounced //.
/ə/ borough, Poughkeepsie, thorough, Willoughby, yarborough Pronounced // when at the end of a word in American English (borough and thorough thus rhyme with burrow and furrow), but reduced to /ə/ when followed by another syllable in many dialects (such as in thoroughly).
/ʌp/, /əp/ hiccough Variant spelling of the more common hiccup.
/əf/ Greenough Pronounced /ˈɡrɛnəf/ as the name of a river in Western Australia, and usually pronounced /ˈɡrn/ as a surname.
/ɒk/ hough Rhymes with cock, lock. More commonly spelled hock from the 20th century onwards.
/ɒx/ Brough, Clough, lough, turlough Rhymes with Scots loch. Many speakers substitute /k/ for /x/.

Slough has three pronunciations, depending on its meaning:

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/.[6] Additionally, three parishes of Milton KeynesWoughton /ˈwʊftən/, Loughton /ˈltən/ and Broughton /ˈbrɔːtən/—all have different pronunciations of the combination.[7][8]

Tough, though, through and thorough are formed by adding another letter each time, yet none of them rhyme (in American English, however, though and thorough both have //).

Some humorous verses have been written to illustrate this seeming incongruity:

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/.[citation needed]

In April 1984, at its yearly meeting, the Simplified Spelling Society adopted the following reform as its house style:[14][15]

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b Adam Brown, Understanding and Teaching English Spelling: A Strategic Guide, 2018, ISBN 1138082678, p. 214
  2. ^ "Definition of Trough by Merriam-Webster". merriam-webster.com. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 16 September 2017.
  3. ^ "Definition of Slough by Merriam-Webster". merriam-webster.com. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 31 January 2024.
  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. ^ Sinclair, J.M., ed. (1999). Collins Concise Dictionary (4th ed.). Glasgow: HarperCollins. p. 867. ISBN 0 00 472257 4.
  7. ^ Morice, Dave (2005). "Kickshaws". Butler University. p. 228. Archived from the original on 1 November 2018. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ "A Variable Symbol". Punch, or the London Charivari. 68. 16 January 1875.
  10. ^ O-U-G-H
  11. ^ Ough, a Phonetic Fantasy
  12. ^ Watt, T. S. (21 June 1954). "Brush Up Your English". The Guardian.
  13. ^ Roberts, Alan (28 March 2004). ""ough" poem". Archived from the original on 2017-08-27. Retrieved August 27, 2017.
  14. ^ "The Society's 1984 Proposals". Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society (February 1988).
  15. ^ "Tough Though Thought – and we call it correct spelling!" Archived 2011-04-16 at the Wayback Machine. Simplified Spelling Society (1984).