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The 10 Pronunciations of -ough

The 10 Pronunciations of -ough

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-OUGH is one of the most confusing spellings in English. Because of changes in the spelling of English vowels over time, and English’s penchant for borrowing words from other languages, we’ve ended up with this hot mess of letters which can be pronounced in a number of different ways.

Let’s take a closer look.

  1. thought - Adding a ‘t’ to -ough results in /ɔ:/, the aw sound in law, followed by a /t/ sound. The -gh is silent, so these words rhyme with port. This spelling is quite common in past simple verbs, for example bought, sought, caught. 

  2. rough – /ʌ/, the uh sound in up, followed by an /f/ sound, resulting in words rhyming with stuff. For example, tough, enough

  3. plough – /aʊ/,  the ow sound in now. This appears in some fairly uncommon words in English, for example, bough. It also appears with a final /t/ sound in drought, which rhymes with out.

  4. through - / u:/, the oo sound in too. The -gh  is silent, so words like this rhyme with do

  5. slough – in British English, the same as plough; in American English, like through. Another uncommon word, a slough means a place where the land is very muddy, like a swamp. 

  6. though - /əʊ/, the oh sound in go. The -gh is silent, so words rhyme with so. For example, dough, although

  7. lough - /ɒk/, the ock sound in lock, so this word sounds the same as ‘lock’. This is an old Irish word for a lake!

  8. thorough - /ə/, In British English, the -ough isn’t stressed, and so becomes the weak schwa sound, like the -er in father. In American English, the -ough is pronounced /əʊ/, the oh sound in go. Another example of this pattern is borough.

  9. cough - /ɒ/, the o sound in off, followed by an /f/. Rhymes with off, for example, trough

  10. hiccough – more commonly spelt as ‘hiccup’, and pronounced with an /ʌ/, the ‘uh’ sound in ‘cup’

Confusing, isn’t it?!

Fortunately, you can pretty much ignore 5, 7, and 10, as they are very unusual words. 

That leaves us with 7 more frequent patterns that are useful to learn.

Can you think of more examples of words with each of these 7 sounds? 

Which sounds & spellings do you find most challenging?

Let us know in the comments!