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.
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.
/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.