105: Pronouncing 'though,' 'thought,' 'through,' and 'thorough'

These four o-u-g-h words can be so similar, yet different in very important ways.


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 105th episode.

Today's topic came from a request on the forums. A user from Barcelona, Spain, asked about the words though, thought, through, and thorough. The fact that all of these words share the o-u-hg-h spelling pattern is at the heart of the confusion. However, confusing or not, it's necessary to be able to confidently use these words.

Only one of these words, thought, follows any kind of predictable spelling pattern. When the letters o-u-g-h are followed by the letter t, the o-u-g-h is usually pronounced as the aw sound (aw sound), (that's the sound in the word dog). So the words thought, brought and fought all rhyme, and the aw sound (aw sound) is the vowel sound for all of them.

Let's move on to the word through. Through t-h-r-o-u-g-h is pronounced the same as threw t-h-r-e-w. Threw t-h-r-e-w, is phonetic. We expect that the letters e-w can be pronounced as the oo sound. Other words spelled e-w and pronounced as the oo sound are the words chew, drew, and flew. So, if you can remember that through, t-h-r-o-u-g-h, and threw, t-h-r-e-w, are pronounced the same, you should have less trouble with that word. Just remember the sentence, "He threw the ball through the window."

The vowel sound in the words though, t-h-o-u-g-h, and thorough, t-h-o-r-o-u-g-h, is the long o sound (long o). I'm going to set thorough aside for a bit, then come back it later. The word though rhymes with throw, t-h-r-o-w. If you can remember that through, t-h-r-o-u-g-h, and threw, t-h-r-e-w are pronounced the same, then hopefully you can also remember that though, t-h-o-u-g-h, and throw rhyme.

I'll say that again; through and threw are pronounced the same, though and throw rhyme.

Now, let's get back to thorough. That o-r spelling in the word thorough adds a little extra complexity to the word. The letters o-r are usually pronounced (or sound), which I call the or sound. However, in this word, they are pronounced as schwa+r, even though they are on a stressed syllable. Remember, schwa+r is an r sound that creates a syllable, though no vowel sound is actually used. To say that schwa+r, go directly from the consonant sound into the r sound. Notice how I go directly from the unvoiced th to the r sound in the word thorough, thorough. The first syllable of that word has no distinguishable vowel sound, thorough. I say the r sound is a schwa+r because it creates a syllable. If the word thorough were pronounced as a regular r sound and not schwa+r, we'd have a different word completely. What word would we have? We'd have the single-syllable word throw, t-h-r-o-w.

Listen to the important difference between the words thorough and throw, thorough, throw. One more time: thorough, throw.

My point here is not to be another teacher telling you how difficult these words are, and how non-phonetic English can be. We all know that already. The truth is, these words are important, and we use them a lot. They are, therefore, worthy of some special attention from ESL/ELL teachers and students.

Because of all the mentions of spellings in this episode, it would be a good idea to read the transcripts while listening to this episode again. We post all of our transcripts on Pronuncian.com. You can find them by going to www.pronuncian.com/podcast.

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