Ghosts, coughs and daughters: how to pronounce ‘gh’ in English.

belchonock / iStock / Getty Images Plus

by Liz Walter

There are many common words in English that contain the pair of letters ‘gh’. ‘Gh’ can be pronounced /g/ (like ‘goat’), /f/ (like ‘fun’) or it can be silent, but in that case it will affect the vowels that come before it. Unfortunately, many of these pronunciations simply have to be learned. However, there are a few basic rules that can help.

Firstly, when ‘gh’ is at the beginning of a word, or at the beginning of a stressed syllable, it is always pronounced /g/. Examples of this are ghost, ghastly, ghetto and spaghetti.

Words that end in ‘ought’ have the pronunciation /ɔːt/ in UK English (the sound in the word ‘short’) and /ɑːt/ in US English (the vowel sound as in the first syllable of ‘father’). Examples are thought, fought, bought, brought and ought.

Words containing the letters ‘igh’ have the pronunciation /aɪ/ (the sound in ‘white’ and ‘nine’). This is the same for UK and US pronunciation. Examples are tight, high, sigh, bright, fortnight and delighted.

The combination ‘eigh’ is pronounced /eɪ/ (the sound in ‘wait’ or ‘hate’), for example in eight, weight and neighbour. The only exception to this (among commonly used words) is height, which is pronounced /haɪt/ (and rhymes with ‘white’). This is a great example of the difficulty of English pronunciation – why should weight and height, two words with similar spellings and describing similar concepts, have different pronunciations? The answer is almost certainly to do with the word origins, but that doesn’t help our poor students!

The usual pronunciation for ‘augh’ is /ɔː/ (UK) /ɑː/ (US). This is the case for words such as caught, taught, daughter, and distraught. However, the words draught(y) (UK spelling) and laugh(ter) have the sound /ɑːf/ (UK) /æf/ (US).

Strangely, there is only one common word that contains the letters ‘aigh’, and that is straight (along with the other members of its family such as straighten and straightforward). The sound here is /eɪ/ for UK and US English.

Finally, I will go back to that tricky combination ‘ough’. I have already dealt with ‘ought’ words above, but there are at least 7 other ways of pronouncing this combination, and I’m afraid they simply have to be learned, so here they are:

/əʊ/ (UK) /oʊ/ (US): although, dough, though.

/aʊ/ bough, drought, plough

/uː/ through

/ɒf/ (UK) /ɑːf/ (US) trough, cough

/ʌf/ enough, rough, tough

/ə/ (UK) /oʊ/ (US) thorough, borough

I will end with the weirdest one of all: hiccough, which is pronounced /ˈhɪk.ʌp/ (the sound ‘up’ at the end). Nowadays, we often spell it ‘hiccup’, but you do still see it written with the -ough spelling.

Do let me know if you come across any ‘gh’ pronunciations I’ve missed, and don’t forget, there are audio recordings on all the words in the dictionary on this site.

29 thoughts on “Ghosts, coughs and daughters: how to pronounce ‘gh’ in English.

  1. RuizGarcía

    When it says “…but there are at least 7 other ways of pronouncing this combination”, it should be “6 other ways”, shouldn’t it?

    1. Brigitte

      Dear Liz, many thanks, clear and most helpful. Would be nice to also have a clue on pronouncing names of places and people. Or at least some indications. As a non native English-speaker I struggle a lot! thanks you in advance.

      1. Liz Walter

        I’ll have a think about that! Place names are really hard to pronounce. The Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary has a pretty comprehensive coverage of place names.

    1. Liz Walter

      No worries at all! Readers definitely have spotted mistakes in my posts before, so I was just relieved to find that wasn’t one of them!

  2. Thank you, Liz!!! A very interesting article, indeed! I teach History of the English Language at a university in San Juan, Argentina. After reading your article, I feel like tracing back all these words’ etymologies to see what I can find out.
    Mariela

  3. WordSifter

    I’m a lifelong AmE speaker (who was also an English instructor). Never have I heard “father” pronounced so as to rhyme with words like “ought.” I also don’t pronounce it that way: the standard AmE pronunciation is “FAH-ther, whereas “ought” is “awt.”

    1. Liz Walter

      That’s interesting – I just went to the dictionary entry for ‘thought’ to check – the US voice there certainly pronounces the vowel as /ɑː/. Maybe it’s a regional thing?

    1. Some of these words have roots in Gaelic. Gaelic had its own alphabet until the 20th century. In particular, there was an accent (a dot) on top of some letters (which indicated the correct pronunciation), which was replaced with a “h” following the letter. [for example, ċ in gaelic type becomes ch in Roman type].
      This now causes a lot of confusion, particularly with Gaelic personal names and place names that transferred directly to English. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_orthography#Followed_by_bh,_dh,_gh,_mh for more details.

  4. Cristina

    So, the difference between ‘laugh’ and ‘cough’ is just that the vowel sound is slightly longer in ‘laugh’. Is that right?

    1. Liz Walter

      Not really – they are different vowels. Remember you can listen to sound recordings of all the words in the Cambridge Dictionary on this site – for British and American English. That will probably help to explain the differences.

  5. Sergio

    There is one interesting word in English which could be pronounced two ways. It’s the word SLOUGH. If we mean a marsh or a swamp, we pronounce it as [slˈʌf]. But if we mean A LOT OF… we will pronounce it like SLEW [slˈuː].

      1. Sergio

        It’s true only for American English because they like to simplify. In British English rules my rule(pardon me for double rule, oops, now triple).

  6. Andra

    Thank you, Ms Walter! As a native English speaker (San Francisco, CA) now teaching beginning English to adults, as well as “semi-fluent” university students in France, this is a particular topic I have difficulty explaining so clearly. Not to mention they think I am copping out when I say “some things have no logic, we just have to pay attention, and memorize.” I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  7. Marco Stamazza

    English spelling is a bit easier than oriental logograms but not much. I can’t uderstand why English speaking people don’t demand a reform of it. G. B. Shaw left some money for this purpose. Where is it?

  8. Courtney

    I’m a native AmE speaker who lived in the U.K. for several years and I still work as a content editor for a U.K. company (hence fairly “fluent” in British English as well). When I taught English (to native AmE students) years ago I enjoyed twisting their brains a bit by writing “ghoti” on the board and stating that it could be an alternative spelling of “fish”. You just need the “gh” sound from “rough”, the “o” sound from “women”, and the “ti” sound from “nation”. 😉

  9. Sebi

    Thank you for the great review of ‘gh’ pronunciation in English!

    Not too long ago I encountered a nice “remembering sentence” for this specific topic:

    A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.

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