No English spelling could be more confusing.
Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 205th episode.
How many of you are frustrated by trying to understand the pronunciation of the 'o-u-g-h' spelling? I'm sure many of you are.
Here's the trouble with the 'o-u-g-h' spelling; its pronunciation almost completely unpredictable. In just the words 'through,' 'though,' and 'thought,' we hear three different pronunciations: the oo sound /u/, the long o /oʊ/, and the aw sound /ɔ/. Then there are words like 'cough,' which has the same vowel sound as 'thought,' but with an added f sound /f/. The word 'enough' also has an f sound /f/, but with a different vowel sound than 'cough.' Of all the words I've used as examples so far, only one, the word 'thought' follows a predictable pattern.
If there are so few patterns to follow, how on earth can you learn these pronunciations? Don't worry, I'm here to help you. In place of patterns, we'll use categories. Grouping words together is a good way to learn.
Since I know many of you out there are pronouncing these words incorrectly, I'd recommend reading the transcript while listening to this episode so you can see the word I'm saying. I'll also provide symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet, so those of you who can read sounds that way can see what I'm talking about. You can find this transcript by going to Pronuncian.com--spelled p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n--and clicking 'Podcasts.' Then click on 'Episode 205.'
Let's start with the known pattern and the word 'thought,' which we pronounce with the aw sound (aw sound) In the International Phonetic Alphabet, the symbol for this looks like a backward letter 'c' /ɔ/. Besides the aw sound, what do the following words have in common?
Have you figured it out? All of those words have a letter t following the 'o-u-g-h.' So, if you see 'o-u-g-h-t,' you can assume an /ɔt/ pronunciation. There is, of course, a word that doesn't fit the pattern, and that is the word 'drought,' which uses the ow sound /aʊ/ instead.
Now let's look at the words that we can group with the word 'though,' pronounced with a long o /aʊ/ sound. Some of these words are not very common, so if you're not familiar with them yet, don't worry. Words with the same pronunciation pattern as 'though' are:
Let's move on to words that include an f sound in their pronunciation. The vowel sound in the second syllable of the word 'enough' /ənʌf/ is a short u sound (short u). We have two matching words in English:
The vowel sound in the word 'cough' is the aw sound /ɔ/. The only other word that has the aw sound plus f sound pronunciation is the word 'trough' /trɔf/. 'Trough,' however, is really not a very common word.
Finally, we have the oddball (oo sound) pronunciation of the word 'through,' there is only one word that matches, and that's the word 'slough' /slu/ which means 'swamp.' The word 'slough' might be even less common than the word 'trough,' so in some ways, the word 'through' is all my itself.
And that's it. Now that wasn't so hard, was it? Now that you know all the pattern and categories for 'o-u-g-h,' let's recap. I'll leave time for you to repeat each word after I say it.
Category 1 is the 'o-u-g-h-t' words, including:
The word 'draught' /dræft/ of course, does not fit that pattern.
Category 2 is the long o words, including:
Category 3 is the words that include an f sound. We can break this into short u plus f, which includes the words:
and the aw sound plus the f sound, including:
Then we we're left with just those last two words which are pronounced with the oo sound:
And there you have it. You have three major categories, plus a few words left over. Memorize these words and their spellings, and you probably won't come across many other 'o-u-g-h' words in English. If you do, your best bet is to consult a dictionary and let it tell you the pronunciation.
Don't forget, you can leave comments or suggestions for us on social media. You can find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pronuncian, or on Twitter by also searching for 'Pronuncian' p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n.
That's all for today, everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.
Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.