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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]


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]

Most common pronunciations

List of pronunciations

Pronunciation Examples Note
/ʌf/ Brough, chough, enough, Hough, rough, slough (see below), 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/.[2]
// bough, doughty, drought, plough, slough (see below), Slough, sough Rhymes with how, cow. Sough is also pronounced /sʌf/.
// although, dough, furlough, though Rhymes with toe, no.
/ɔː/ bought, brought, dreadnought, fought, nought, ought, sought, thought, wrought Rhymes with caught. 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 and new.
/ə/ borough, thorough, Willoughby Rhymes with error and horror (British English). Rhymes with burrow and furrow (American English). Pronounced // in American English, except when destressed by a following syllable in many dialects, as in thoroughly and Willoughby.
/ʌp/, /əp/ hiccough Rhymes with cup. Variant spelling of the more common hiccup.
/əf/ Greenough Rhymes with French œuf. Pronounced /ˈɡrɛnəf/ as the name of a river in Western Australia. As a surname, it is usually pronounced /ˈɡrn/, like although & dough (above).
/ɒx/ hough, lough, turlough Rhymes with Scots loch. Hough has been more commonly spelled hock from the 20th century onwards. Lough (an Irish cognate of Scots loch) and (tur)lough are also pronounced /lɒx/.
/ɒk/ Clough, lough, turlough Rhymes with lock and cock. Both are also pronounced /ɒk/.
/ɒp/ Ough's Road, Port Hope, ON, Canada Rhymes with stops. Pronounced Op's Road.

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/. 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:

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:[11][12]

Already standard

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

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:

Common informal

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

Comparable combinations

⟨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:

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


  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