Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

English is a very strange language, possibly because it’s really the mish-mash of so many different languages. And even then, it’s hardly universal with Australian English having all sorts of slang that we don’t hear in Canada (and vice versa), not to mention the spelling variations we see between Canada and the US. It’s no surprise that English can be so challenging to learn as a second language.

In many other languages, when you encounter a certain letter combination, you can be reasonably certain about how you should pronounce it. You may not necessarily know what you’re saying, but you can “sound it out.” This is partly true in English, until you come across letter combinations like “ough.” In fact, when you consider some pronunciations over in the United Kingdom, there are at least ten different ways that you can say “ough” in the context of a word.

Here are some examples.

Rhymes with “Off”: Cough, trough…

Rhymes with “Huff”: Enough, rough, tough, slough (“sluff,” as in outer layer of snake skin)

Rhymes with “No”: Dough, although…

Rhymes with “Cow”: Bough (like of a tree), plough (more commonly spelled as “plow”)

Rhymes with “Caw”: Ought, thought, wrought (usually followed by a “t”)

Rhymes with “Too”: Slough (American English “sloo,” like the muddy swamp or saltwater inlet), through…

Rhymes with “Fir”: Borough, thorough (British English pronunciation)

Rhymes with “Stirrup”: Hiccough (though we almost always spell that as “hiccup” now)

Rhymes with “Mock”: Hough (though we use “hock” now)

Rhymes with “Sock”: Lough (Irish spelling of Scottish “loch,” both with more of an “aspired” pronunciation at the end)

So, what does all of this mean? Not much, really, aside from the fact that you have to be a little extra careful when reading something out loud, because you may accidentally mispronounce a word or two. Have a go at this one:

Though John had more than enough dough, he thought he didn’t need medical attention when he fell off the bough into the slough next to the lough and started to cough up blood.

Native English speakers may be able to get through that sentence quite naturally, but you can see how someone who is less familiar with the language can have some struggles. Are there other letter combinations that you know where we shouldn’t take the pronunciation for granted?