Rob Woutat

“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, let’s 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 and thought.

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. We’ll come back to new later. O-u-g-h can also sound like oh, as it does in dough, though and although. But sometimes it’s 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.

Let’s move on to the next word, I suggested. You’ve misspelled new here. It should be n-e-w, not n-o-o.

Not n-o-u-g-h? As in through?

I’m afraid not. Nor does new rhyme with sew, which is pronounced so. It’s 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 you’re referring to the tribe of Native Americans.


That’s just the way it is. Now let’s move on to the next word—suit. 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 it’s 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 you’re in the past or the present tense.

Ngoc’s eyes were beginning to glaze over.

Now, I said, let’s 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]
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