I bot a noo soot of close.
So wrote Ngoc, a young Vietnamese immigrant tutoring in English and
trying to fight his way through the brambles of our spelling.
OK, I said, lets start with bought. You spelled it just
as it sounds, but bought is actually spelled b-o-u-g-h-t. We
have the same vowel sound and the same combination of letters in ought
With a stubby little pencil, he wrote in his notebook, ough = aw.
So taught is spelled t-o-u-g-h-t? he asked.
No, taught is spelled t-a-u-g-h-t. Or t-a-u-t, depending on
the meaning. But forget about that for the moment. O-u-g-h can also
be pronounced off, as in cough, or trough. And
uff, as in rough and enough.
I see, he said, his brow wrinkling slightly. In his notebook he wrote,
ough = off, and ough = uff.
But sometimes, I explained, o-u-g-h is pronounced oo, as it
is in through.
He made another note, then his eyes brightened. Ah, he said, then
I misspelled new. I should have spelled it n-o-u-g-h.
Well, not really. Well come back to new later. O-u-g-h
can also sound like oh, as it does in dough, though
and although. But sometimes its pronounced ow,
as in bough, a tree branch.
A deeper furrow developed on his brow as he dutifully made another
note in his notebook. But then his face suddenly brightened again.
Then cow is spelled c-o-u-g-h, and how is h-o-u-g-h,
and sow is s-o-u-g-h, and now is n-o-u-g-h. Right?
Well, no. We spell those words with an o-w ending, as we do vow,
plow, and endow.
I see, Ngoc said. So words ending in o-w all rhyme with cow
and how and sow and so on?
Not really. Not all of them anyway. We also have mow and low,
which rhyme with though, as does tow, which can be spelled
either t-o-w or t-o-e, depending on whether you mean to draw
or pull behind by a chain or rope or one of the digits
of the foot.
Hmmm, he said, a note of discouragement creeping into his voice.
Lets move on to the next word, I suggested. Youve misspelled
new here. It should be n-e-w, not n-o-o.
Not n-o-u-g-h? As in through?
Im afraid not. Nor does new rhyme with sew, which
is pronounced so. Its the same long o sound we have in
dough. Sew sounds like it should be spelled soo, but the word
that sounds like soo, meaning to bring legal action against,
is actually spelled s-u-e. Or S-i o-u-x, if youre referring
to the tribe of Native Americans.
Thats just the way it is. Now lets move on to the next
wordsuit. The word you have written, soot, actually
means the fine black particles, chiefly carbon, produced by incomplete
combustion of coal, oil, wood, or other fuel. And its pronounced
not like suit or boot but like foot. The word
you want here is suit, spelled s-u-i -t. Suit may look
like it should be pronounced su-et; however suet is not an item of
clothing but the hard fat around the kidneys of cattle and sheep,
used in cooking and making tallow.
I paused at that point, giving him a chance to catch up. After a thoughtful
moment, he asked, Is there a difference between suite and suit?
Yes, s-u-i -t-e is a staff of attendants, or a set of matching furniture,
or a series of connected rooms used as a unit. It rhymes with sweet.
Or treat. By the way, I added, the long E sound can be spelled
both ee and ea, although sometimes ea makes the
short E sound, as in threat, breath, dread, tread, read, etc.
And r-e-a-d is pronounced either red or reed, depending
on whether youre in the past or the present tense.
Ngocs eyes were beginning to glaze over.
Now, I said, lets look at your last word, close. Close
means to shut, or to cease operation. The
word you want here is clothes, spelled c-l-o-t-h-e-s.
But it sounds just like close.
Then why is there a t-h in there?
Well, just because.
By this time his eyes had grown glassy, his limbs had gone slack,
and his notebook and stubby little pencil lay abandoned on the table.
Had enough for today, Ngoc?
TheScreamOnline regular Rob Woutat has contributed a wide variety of pieces to newspapers and magazines and to the National Public Radio affiliate in Seattle/Tacoma. He has written two family histories and a memoir and is now working on a novel. Please check the Talent Index to see his other work.
He can be reached at rwoutat[AT]tscnet.com.
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