The letters -ough- can be pronounced a ridiculous number of different ways in English. Here is a possibly incomplete list:

  • tough, enough
  • cough, trough
  • bough, plough
  • though, dough
  • thought, bought
  • through
  • thorough, borough
  • weirdos like hiccough, hough, lough.

Are there any other letter sequences in English near this crazy? How do non-English speakers cope with trying to learn a language as messy as this?

  • 1
    @Martha: cool! How do you pronounce them? To rhyme with "go"? Commented Nov 19, 2010 at 0:29
  • 3
    My "though" rhymes with "go", but my "thorough" rhymes with "kookaburra" :D Commented Nov 19, 2010 at 19:55
  • 2
    I've got [ʌf], [ɒːf], [aʊ], [oʊ], [ɒːʔ], [uː], and [əʊ]. Fairly standard American, I should think, but even as a teenager I've been called old-fashioned-sounding a number of times on this site. And yes, I pronounce "caught" and "cot" differently. How else would you distinguish "haughty" from "hottie"?
    – Jon Purdy
    Commented Nov 22, 2010 at 5:42
  • 1
    @Mr. Shiny and new: as far as I know, thorough and borough in most (all?) UK dialects rhyme with kookaburra — the last vowel is a schwa — but in some (many?) US dialects they rhyme with tomorrow — the last vowel is [əʊ] as in go (but unstressed and a bit reduced).
    – PLL
    Commented Dec 11, 2010 at 0:09
  • 2
    It turns out that hiccough is a misspelling of hiccup. Honest! And hough /hɒk/ and lough /lɒx/ are both really interesting.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 8, 2012 at 17:18

4 Answers 4


Answer to (2):

We memorize each exceptional word. In the grand scheme of things, this is actually not a huge number of words. Consider Chinese and Japanese, who have a large number meaning-based characters that provide little to no information about their pronunciation at all. If memorizing the pronunciation of thousands of characters is possible, then memorizing English words with exceptional spelling seems almost trivial.

  • I guess English is far from being the hardest language in the world. Nevertheless, whoever came up with the idea of consistent phonetic spelling throughout a language deserves a medal! Commented Nov 20, 2010 at 19:49
  • 4
    +1. A large number of Chinese characters are semanto-phonetic: half of the character gives you a clue as to pronunciation; the other half, meaning. So if you're a literate native speaker, you stand a pretty good chance of being able to figure out an unknown character. The problem is a bit more extreme in Japanese, which tends to use a single character for multiple related meanings, which are disambiguated by context given by phonetic characters. Each meaning typically has its own slightly different pronunciation, which may be derived from a Chinese word or a native Japanese one. Yeeeah.
    – Jon Purdy
    Commented Nov 20, 2010 at 22:58

It doesn’t surpass it, but ue seems to at least be a modest little brother to ough. It can represent:

  • \-yoo\: argue, cue, ensue
  • \-oo\: glue, true, sue
  • [silent]: tongue, morgue, vague, the Hague
  • \-way\: segue, suede

(This is just looking at the cases where it really is functioning as a unit, omitting examples like truer and queer, where a phoneme straddles its boundary.)

[Inspired by the comments here.]


"al" can be pronounced

  • /ɔ:l/: all, also
  • /ɒl/ or /ɔl/: false
  • /ɔ:/: talk
  • /a:l/: dal, kraal, phall
  • /a:/: half, calm, almond
  • /əl/: usual, alone
  • /æl/: analysis
  • /æ/: salmon
  • /eil/: halo
  • /ei/: halfpenny, Ralph (by some)

OK, the case for /a:l/ is pretty weak -- I can't think of any examples except direct loans.

  • Indirect loans being? Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 14:38
  • @EdwinAshworth What's the correct term, then? I mean direct from one language to another with no change except what is made necessary by the use of different writing systems. As opposed to, e.g. priest < L. presbyter < Gk presbyteros, or fancy < fantasy < Fr fantasie < L < Gr phantasia.
    – Rosie F
    Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 14:56
  • Loan (or loanword). 'Direct ...' is tautologous, and undesirable (not all tautologies are). Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 15:21
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    How about words like logically and strategically, where it's pronounced /l/? Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 19:29

J. J can be pronounced as "wa" as in "marihuana" and "oh" as in "Jose'" and "Jae" as in Jacob and "jah" as in "jack"

  • And don't forget the "zh" j in Taj Mahal and Jacques, and the "y" j in Jarlsberg.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 5:48
  • Yes, but most of those are foreign words, the only one which can be considered truly English is "Jack". Even "Jacob" is a biblical name derived from Ancient Hebrew via Greek and Latin.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 8:57

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