A Way With Words: Tough Enough

A Way With Words: Tough Enough

October 20, 2015 Writing 4
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I have a long love/hate relationship with the English language. It is a nightmarish mishmash of dozens of different languages – dead, romantic, tongue-twisting and a few made-up ones. Where other languages have consistent rules for pronunciation, English is like your crazy, drunk uncle. You can never be sure what is going to come out of your mouth. You almost have to make it up as you go.

Take the combination of “ough.” Four little letters – two vowels and two consonants – how difficult can they be to articulate? Remember when you were a kid, and your teachers and parents would coach you to, “sound out the word?” As a kindergartener, there was no way for you to know that you would struggle with this deceptively simple mix of sounds for the rest of your life.

At last count, there are no less than ten different ways to pronounce “ough.” Some are attributed to British or Scottish versions of words, but these are terms that have become part of the American lexicon.

How is a person to know, by sight, which one is which? There is no rule to fall back on, it truly is a matter of memorizing how the combination of letters is spoken in each of its variations.

Arguably, the pronunciation of a written word is not as crucial as that of a spoken one, but when you are trying to achieve a certain flow in your writing, perhaps the lyric cadence of a poem, it matters. It is important when creating dialogue, and needing to develop a certain regional or ethnic dialect for your characters.

How many of these could you name?

enough – uff as in suffer
trough – off as in offer
dough – oh as in go
brought – aw as in saw
plough – ow as in flower
through – oo as in too

Extra credit/alternate spellings:
hiccough – uhp as in cup
hough – ahk as in auk
lough – ahKH as in loch
Scarborough (Brit. city) – uh as in above

While not the most masterfully constructed sentence, here is an example using each pronunciation of “ough”: (try reading it out loud to get the full effect.)

The drunk farmer hiccoughed and fell in a trough on his way through Scarborough to a pawn shop to hough his plough then brought home enough dough to fill a lough.


4 Responses

  1. kenml2014 says:

    My take; The drunk farmer hiccuped and fell in a trough on his way through Scarborough to a pawn shop to hock his plow then brought home enough money to fill a loft.:)

  2. Tara R says:

    The variation “lough” has a more guttural sound, like you’re coughing, and there is a hard K sound at the end.

  3. lyssamedana says:

    ghoti – fish – gh as in cough, o as in women, ti as in suggestion! Always a fascinating topic, the insight is really useful.

    • Tara R says:

      When I was researching this article I found an interesting alternate spelling for “potato.” It made my head hurt.


      gh – hiccough – p
      ough – though – o
      pt – pterodactyl – t
      eigh – neigh – a
      bt – debt – t
      eau – bureau – o

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