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Is there a rule, or rules, for how to pronounce ough?

trough (short o, gh pronounced f), thought (short o, silent gh), though (long o, silent gh), through (oo, silent gh), tough (short u, gh pronounced f).

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There are at least five ways to pronounce ough:

  • tough, enough (rhymes with cuff)
  • through (rhymes with blue)
  • trough, cough (rhymes with off)
  • ought, bought (rhymes with caught)
  • bough (rhymes with cow)

As for the rules, the only one I can think of is that the pronunciation found in thought only happens with the ough is followed by a "t". Other than that, there's really no way to tell by looking at the word.

I remember the first time I met someone with the last name of Gough. I didn't know if it was pronounced as "go", "goff", "guff", or "gow" (that last one rhyming with "now," not "know").

English has many letter combinations like this; consider:

  • earth vs hearth
  • now vs low
  • eight vs height
  • food vs blood
  • pint vs lint

to name but a few. Some words (like bow and wind) have vowels that can be pronounced two different ways, depending on the meaning of the word, leading to some ambiguous sentences, like this one:

He took a bow as he gave her a bow.

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    Of course, the t doesn't require rhyming with thought, e.g. drought (and drought is no guide to draught either). – choster May 29 '15 at 21:25
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    "He took a small bow…. to play his small violin." "Despite being out of breath, the last few turns gave him the wind he needed" ;-) – Tetsujin May 30 '15 at 6:33
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I think it is just one of those things in English that doesn't necessary have a consistent set of rules. You just have to learn them individually. This my perspective as a native English speaker. Someone approaching English as a foreign language may have developed a system of remembering these things, but this is outside my experience.

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There isn't a rule, really. English is known for it's special spelling at times. There's a dummy word that perfectly describes this:

Ghoti, a respelling of the word fish and pronounced the same way (/ˈfɪʃ/). It uses the sounds gh from enough, o from women and ti from intention (not necessarily those words, but those sounds).

It just goes to show that the English pronunciation can be quite unpredictable at times if your point when you're basing it on spelling. So speaking the language correctly is just a matter of studying the pronunciation of tthe words or relying on your language instinct.

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    It's worth noting, though, that nobody would really pronounce "ghoti" as "fish". The "gh" combination doesn't make the "f" sound at the beginning of a word, and the "ti" combination doesn't make the "sh" sound except in combinations such as "-tion" or "-tian". So, contrary to what the "ghoti" example is intended to illustrate, there are a handful of rules that can be applied. – J.R. May 29 '15 at 21:14
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    Of course you wouldn't ever pronounce ghoti that way. There are several rules and conventions. That word was just invented to illustrate the many irregularities that do exist in the language. – Sander May 29 '15 at 21:16
  • You know that, and I know that, but I'm not sure that would have been crystal clear to the novice learner reading your answer and seeing that word for the first time, so I wanted to add a comment. – J.R. May 29 '15 at 21:18
  • Perfectly understandable, I should've thought of that. – Sander May 29 '15 at 21:19

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