Sunday, June 1, 2014

Spelling and pronunciation - making sense of augh and ough

A well-known poem on the difficulties of English pronunciation starts:
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, though, and through
And we might say that this applies just as much to spelling. Words with ough and augh are often cited as examples of our 'crazy' spelling system, and it's true that ough can have as many as seven or eight different sounds. But there aren't that many of these words, and they're quite easy to master.

Let's start with the easy one - augh:


The letter group augh has two basic sounds:
  • /ɑ:f/ (staff)
    laugh, laughable, laughter etc
    draught, draughty, draughtsman etc
  • /ɔ:/ (horse) - everything else
    caught, taught
    daughter, naughty etc
    haugh (/ɔ:x/ in Scotland) - quite rare


The letter group ough can come:
1. in the middle of a word or syllable, usually followed by t, where there are two sounds:
  • /ɔ:/ (horse)
    ought, bought, thought
  • /aʊ/ (owl)
    doughty, drought
2. at the end of the word or syllable, when there are six main sounds:
  • /əʊ/ (phone)
    although, dough, though
  • /aʊ/ (owl)
    bough, plough
    slough (1)
  • /ʌf/ (stuff)
    enough, rough, tough
    chough, clough, slough (2)
  • /ɒf/ (soft)
    cough, trough
  • /ə/ (butter)
    borough, thorough
  • /u:/ (boot)
    through, breakthrough
There are three words which have their own sound
  • hiccoughs /hɪkʌp/ (more usually hiccups)
  • lough /lɒx (like loch in Scottish English)
  • sough -very rare - either /saʊ/ or /sʌf/

Breaking it down into manageable bits

That might sound like a lot of different possibilities, but we can break it down into small groups:

Six verbs

  • one modal /ɔ:/
  • five irregular 2nd and 3rd forms /ɔ:/
    buy - bought
    bring - brought
    fight - fought
    seek - sought
    think - thought

Other high frequency words

  • Very high frequency
    /əʊ/ (phone) - although, though
    /u:/ (boot) - through
    /ʌf/ (stuff) - enough
  • High frequency
    /ɒf/ (soft) - cough
    /ʌf/ (stuff) - rough, tough
    /ə/ (butter) - thoroughly, thorough, borough

Others worth knowing

  • /əʊ/ (phone)
    dough, doughnut
  • /aʊ/ (owl)
    bough, plough, drought
  • /ɔ:/ (horse)
    nought, overwrought
  • /ɒf/ (soft)

The whole poem

The origins of this poem are unknown, but it has been attributed to T.S.Watt, a writer at The Manchester Guardian, and Goerge Bernard Shaw, among others.
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead -
For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose -
Just look them up – and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart -
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five!
You can find a pronunciation exercise based on this poem using IPA symbols, together qith other exercises, at my IPA games post, linked to below.

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