‘Nough Said

When people first begin to study English orthography with me (and my scholarship community), one of the hardest things to swallow is that the trigraph <ugh> — not a digraph <gh> — spells /f/ at the end of a number of English words: tough, cough, laugh. When I first encountered the <ugh> trigraph, I also didn’t buy it. So I did my own analysis of all of the English words with <ugh> and found out that it was a perfectly elegant analysis.

Besides spelling /f/, <ugh> can also spell nothing at all, as in <through>, <though>, <thought>, <caught>, and a number of others. In such words, the <ugh> is an etymological marker, signalling connections to related words.

The more I get to know <ugh>, the more impressed I am with how much meaning it contributes to words in which it appears. It often marks a connection to words with a specific set of letters and/or graphemes: <g>, <c>, <k>, or <(t)ch>, <igh>, <w> or <u>. Consider the evidence:

bought ~ buy

sought ~ seek ~ beseech

caught ~ catch

taught ~ teach

brought ~ bring

haughty ~ high

naughty ~ naught ~ aught ~ wight

laugh ~ cachinnation ~ cackle

fought ~ fight

draught ~ drag ~ draw

ought ~ owe

And many more.

These connections are there to express meaning — not just surface, in-the-moment meaning, but centuries of meaning embedded in these words. They are not there to be effortless for children and foreigners to acquire. They are there like the chromosomes of words, tying together a present with a past and marking members of a family. Even unknown or unrecognized members.

Being aware of the <ugh> trigraph has enriched my understanding not only of individual words, but also of the broader, often breathtaking patterns of the writing system as a whole.

The one <ugh> word I had not been able to connect or explain until tonight, however, was <enough>. That one troubled me. How in the heck does that work? Well, check this out:

enough ~ nigh

Both derive from an ancient word family that denoted ‘to reach, to obtain.’ There, now didn’t that deepen your understanding of both words?

If, like many phonics programs and conventional wisdom, we continue to labor under the misapprehension that English has a <gh> that spells /f/, an <ough> and an <augh> that spell /ɔ/ (as in daughter or ought), and a long list of “exceptions,” we miss those meaningful connections. We miss opportunities to understand.

And that’s evidence enough for me.



  1. Dan Allen says:

    So good, Gina! I know I’m meeting you in a couple hours, but in my jet-lagged, up-since-three-in-the-morning state, this was a brilliant appetizer for the feast of language and meaning I’m about to enjoy this weekend.

  2. Old Grouch says:

    This new article is, as always, rigorously masterful and written with concise clarity that, like all of your work for our orthographic community, is also a celebration of the English language itself.

    The unitary conceptual hierachy of orthographic morphology, orthographic etymology and orthographic phonology is little known in the schooling industry, and even in those rare corners where there is some awareness of it, what is implied by its being a hierarchy is never understood .

    By definition a hierarchy is a ranked and unified whole in which all components have an essentially interrelational functionality. Hierarchical order is not sequential; it is simultaneous and interrelational; the absence of any component rank of a hierarchy renders the whole order both non-functional and incomprehensible.

    Conceptual components of a hierarchy, therefore, can only be understood by reference to the global purpose of the hierarchy – but not in isolation from other components. Put another way, in a hierarchy order any component of it can only be conceived, perceived and comprehended globally.

    This jewel of an article demonstrates that with éclat. And in the context of the current event in Philadelphia, it is a brilliant demonstration of how orthographic etymology is pivotal, and that orthographic phonology simply cannot be properly understood in isolation from orthographic etymology.

    A masterstroke!

  3. Beautifully written! It is a more thorough explanation of what we explored in La Grange. Thank you for taking a “word wall” word off the wall and making perfect sense of its spelling!

  4. Susan carlile says:

    This is a beautiful way of expressing it: “These connections are there to express meaning — not just surface, in-the-moment meaning, but centuries of meaning embedded in these words. They are not there to be effortless for children and foreigners to acquire. They are there like the chromosomes of words, tying together a present with a past and marking members of a family. Even unknown or unrecognized members.”

  5. marymcbride101 says:

    Thanks for making the specific connections to the graphemes. How much easier to understand and teach. Can’t wait to explore and explain with my students.
    An exemplary analysis!

  6. […] today’s orthography time by reading aloud our lists of words.  Tomorrow I will show them Gina Cooke’s post at LEX  , and we’ll talk more about why the <ugh> trigraph is even in some of the words when it […]

  7. Rhidian says:

    What a load of rot!
    Writing is for communicating.
    If you were brought up with a phonetic language you would not think the same. It is only because you have been raised with this status quo that you tolerate it.
    In Spanish (as in Welsh) you don’t need to teach kids to spell or to have spelling tests. The words sound as they are written. Think of the less able children that are condemned to fail due to an archaic language.
    Surely there is a place to remove such hangovers from centuries past to make communication better.
    It might harm a handful of word historians, but it would aid the rest of the world!!

    At least can’t we have a system where the rules are obeyed?

    • Thank you for your comments. Yes, writing is for communicating — but communicating what? A writing system, an orthography, evolves to represent sense and meaning to people who know and use the language. It doesn’t evolve to be simple for young children or foreigners to master.

      Every language is phonetic — phonetic refers to the physical articulation, acoustics, and auditory perception of the spoken language. No writing system is phonetic, however. Pronunciation represented by writing systems is phonological, never phonetic. Not even in Welsh or Spanish. English orthography also represents phonological aspects of pronunciation. What works in Spanish or Welsh would not work in English, because these are all distinct languages. There’s no reason to expect that English should work like another orthography; every orthography is totally unique to the spoken language it represents.

      I’m afraid you’ve misapprehended the purpose of my studies: my aim is not to “tolerate” the “status quo” of English spelling, nor is it to “teach kids to spell” or “have spelling tests.” Nor is it my goal to argue for or against the system, or for or against reform. My aim is to study the system, to see what we can learn about how humans have conceived of their world. I don’t particularly care if someone is a good speller: I am far more interested in the curiosity than in the correctness. I don’t understand the point of being upset about how spelling works, nor am I aware of any evidence that spelling reform “make[s] communication better.” Would that it were that simple!

      Fortunately for you, English absolutely has an orthographic system where the rules are obeyed! Here are some “rules” that English orthography follows 100% of the time:

      *Every word has a base element.
      *Every phonological syllable has a written vowel pattern.
      *Graphemic choices are etymologically governed.

      Just for example. If you find a million exceptions to your “rules,” perhaps you’ve got your “rules” wrong.

  8. Dirk says:

    Seems to me like a PhD thesis in which there is too much to be known about “nothing”. I know (no) “nothing” is unfair but so is the spelling and pronunciation of the word thorough which causes me to have to ask Siri EVERY single time I need to spell it. It may have some great & tricky archaic design and construction from ancient Outer Mongolian or Inner Tasmanian lost language but for me it’s nothing but an aggravation and worse. That word needs to go. Period. It’s a blight. And, as a note, I surely do not have the rules wrong. Say what you will about the rules for this word (whatever they may be) but it is malicious and offensive, at best.

    • So, which word is “malicious and offensive,” thorough or enough? I couldn’t quite make that out in your rant. I wonder what parameters you might set for which words to “need to go.” Should we all just agree that words that you can’t spell should be replaced? For an articulate guy who has the luxury of asking a computer how to spell something, you sure do complain a lot about written words.

      You know, a writing system is what it is. I don’t think it has any moral intent at all, so calling it names won’t help. I’m not an apologist for English orthography; I just don’t see the point of hating it any more than I see the point of hating the dog star, the Himalayas, or the number 71. I’m not sure that it’s productive to hate stuff you don’t understand, but go on ahead.

      And, yes, you do have the rules wrong. There’s no Outer Mongolian or Inner Tasmanian influence at play at all.

  9. Jenni @ Alfabetico says:

    Hi Gina
    I’m wondering if this also applies to the word, ‘eight’. I followed the links on etymology online (see below) to ‘fight’ and was wondering if the orthography of eight could be similarly linked?
    “Spelling substitution of -gh- for a “hard H” sound was a Middle English scribal habit, especially before -t-. In some late Old English examples, the middle consonant was represented by a yogh. Among provincial early Modern English spellings, Wright lists faight, fate, fecht, feeght, feight, feit, feyght, feyt, feort, foight.”

    • Hi Jenni,

      Pretty much any word with an IGH or UGH in present-day English had a post-vocalic H or G in Old English. Like UGH, an IGH may either be a grapheme — spelling /aɪ/ — or a marker (when it follows E or A, as in eight or straight).

      Just as the UGH has relatives, so does the IGH. Words with an IGH almost always have Latinate relatives with a C or G: eight-octave, straight-strict, night-noctunal, fight-pugilist, right-rectitude, light-translucent, delight-delicacy, might-magic, and on and on.

  10. Debra (Deb) K Geise says:

    I finally had time to absorb this post. It exhilarates me every time I can see beyond the phonology, to which I was once so tied. I can’t wait to demonstrate this understanding with my students. I thought Michel’s (Old Grouch’s) comments were thought provoking too. His statement: “Hierarchical order is not sequential; it is simultaneous and interrelational; the absence of any component rank of a hierarchy renders the whole order both non-functional and incomprehensible.” It emphasizes for those who are questioning SWI, the fact that phonology is an integral part of the study but can’t be understood without morphology and etymology. For me, I always thought of the hierarchy of word study as sequential…a formula, if you will. Now, I see it as the components being so intertwined that where we start is guided by a person’s interest.

  11. Kelly Young says:

    My mom found this 2013 post so our appetites could be satiated. Now I understand the purpose of as well as the “phonetic box” (if you will) that I was trying to fit it in. It is a clue (a chromosome, you called it) perhaps a strand of DNA running through these words, connecting them to what they were and what they have become. It’s prettier than “what/why does it say….”. I also think I have a new way of looking for connections based on this post!! Thank you for sharing your study!!!

    • Didja read the other comments? People complain about this word a LOT. Call it “malicious” and “offensive.” But my responses hold up pretty well too.

      I just taught this elegant understanding today in an Intro to SWI LEXinar. It’s just beautiful.

  12. […] learned about the <ugh> from the work of my orthographic linguistics teacher, and I started writing about it myself in 2013. I pinned an analysis to the top of my Twitter profile. Here’s the first, quite […]

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