The Four Sounds of the Spelling OU

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In response to the post on “all a rouse,” Paul Wilkins wrote

I am wondering why people are misusing rouse to mean ruse.

What other spellings of common words are there that would cause them to think that rouse is pronounced in the same was as ruse? The only only one that comes to mind is the -use word ending for words such as hypotenuse.

Actually, there are several English words in which the spelling ou represents the /oo/ sound: you, your, tour, crouton, group, coup

The reference on which I most rely for discussing the sounds and spelling of English is Romalda Spalding’s The Writing Road to Reading.

Spalding based the teaching guidelines in her book on the work of Samuel Orton and his student Anne Gillingham. Both the Spalding Method and the Orton-Gillingham Method organize the sounds and symbols of English into 46 sounds (phonemes) and 70 written symbols (phonograms).

In the Spalding method phonograms that represent more than one sound are presented in order of frequency. That is, if a letter or letter combination can represent more than one sound, the first sound is the most common, the second less common, and so on. When encountering an unfamiliar word, the beginning reader is taught to try the first sound first. If that doesn’t produce a recognizable word, then the second sound is to be tried.

In Spalding the four sounds of the phonogram ou are presented in this order:

1. /ow/ as in found
about, house, shout, mouse, count, loud, sound, hound
2. long o as in four
pour, course, court, gourd, mourn, fourth
3. /oo/ as in you
your, tour, crouton, group, coup
4. /uh/ as in country
cousin, double

As one might expect, American pronunciation has undergone changes since Orton and his students did their research back in the 1920s and 1930s. Television has spread many pronunciations and words that were once considered regional rather than standard. For example, the word tour [tʊr] is often heard pronounced to rhyme with “chore.”

In answer to the reader’s question, the bloggers who spell the word ruse with the phonogram ou have never seen the word in print. They are associating the spelling ou with its third sound and not its most common sound.

As the writing population continues to read less, many conventional spellings will be lost. They will be replaced by forms that “look right” to writers who are not used to seeing them in print.

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16 thoughts on “The Four Sounds of the Spelling OU”

  1. Hello, I realy love your tips. They really help me. I vaguely remember that you had once told that the word “anyways” spkoen in a carefree way, is actually “anyway”? Please help me, am i right?

    like we say: “anyways, i am always there for you.” So how will we write this sentence?

  2. In your article “The Four Sounds of the Spelling OU”, you say the following: “For example, the word tour [tʊr] is often heard pronounced to rhyme with ‘chore’.”

    Fortunately this abomination hasn’t spread to my part of the world.

  3. Charu,
    “Anyways” is a nonstandard form of “anyway,” but is heard everywhere in informal conversation.

    Be assured that it’s on its way.

  4. In your article, there are multiple instances where you indicate that the word “your” is pronounced in such a way that it shares the same “ou” sound as “tour” and “coup.” When I read it, though, I read it so that it rhymes with “four” and “pour.” Is this a regional thing? I am assuming that the word “your” that you are using is the possessive. I do pronounce “you’re” in such a way that it rhymes with “tour.” I see these words used in each other’s place often, and so I try to make sure that my pronunciation clearly indicates which word I am trying to use. Am I crazy?

  5. Mark,
    I don’t think you’re crazy. I suppose it’s a regional thing. I would pronounce all of the following with the same vowel sound (not the vowel sound in four):

    You’re my friend.
    Is this your book?
    This book is yours.

  6. My new married last name is Wouts. It is Dutch and in The Netherlands would be pronounced with a V. We live in California and every new person we meet trips over the pronunciation of our last name. It is Wouts, as in rhymes with bouts. Commonly we get the sound of Woots. I never understood how people could so easily mangle such a simple, yet uncommon name until I read your article here, it helps, but I still think it is silly that they instantly want to take it to the oo sound. I was wanting to give them an English lesson, but now I know better. Thanks!

  7. I was born near Pittsburgh, PA. where the regional language there is Pittsburghese. After college, I was an English teacher and had to “clean up” my speech. However, I moved to the middle of that state and taught in a S. York Co. school, near Lancaster Co., where the regional language was far worse than that in Pgh. In fact, the students told me I was wrong when I said that the plural for you is “you”. There they go by “youns”, thinking “you ones” is right since plural means more than one. It took me quite a while to familiarize myself with their language. However, it was almost impossible to teach them correct English, for many of them held to their native tongue and declined to speak as I did! Now it is funny when I think about it.

  8. Retta, I remember you and me laughing ourselves silly over “yous” at the diner near Hanover. Teaching French, I try to draw comparisons between the French plural “vous” and the English plural “yous”, but my western New York students do not get it. Just when I want them to understand yous, they don’t.

  9. Today my son’s first grade class divided words into columns of long and short vowel sounds. A classmate placed the word would into the short vowel column, but the teacher corrected him, saying it has a long o sound. My son agrees with his classmate, as do I. If his teacher was correct, I’d love to read a logical explanation. She previously attempted to convince the class that oi, as in choice, also has a long o sound. She told me the sounds are “tricky and not always what they seem.”

  10. Diane,
    Would belongs in neither column. The only time ou represents the “long vowel” sound of o is when it is followed by the letter r as in pour. The “short sound” of o is heard in mop. The vowel sound in would is the vowel sound heard in hood. This sound is neither “short” nor “long.”
    The sounds of the alphabet:

  11. According to Spalding’s Writing Road to Reading, the four sounds for ou are” ow as in round; long O as in soul; oo as in you; and short U as in touch. I don’t hear long O in pour or four However according to Merriam Webster, the pronunciation guide does have the ou sounding long O . I’m not sure I agree as yet. I think I will treat the (ou) long O phonogram as in under Marking Conventions from Spaldings Writing Road to Reading: ” ….. phonograms not given on the phonogram cards, and uncommon sounds are underlined twice” . As in the word half, underline the l, friend underline the ie and now personally four, pour, the ou should be underlined twice. Ill leave soul alone as it definitely so long O. OR is a phonogram that say OR and so four will say FOR and pour will say por.

  12. With Frank, there are ten sounds of “ou”. His ten words include duplicate “sour” at 8 and 10, but don’t think “tour” sounds like any of them.

    I speak (South Australian) Australian English, which has its own peculiarities at times.

    The four clusters of words in the original article are correct except that “your” and “tour” do not rhyme with each other or ith “you” and “group”. “Your” rhymes with “pour”, “yore” and (usually) “you’re”. I’m not sure exactly what rhymes with “tour” – perhaps “fewer”.

  13. Thanks much for the pronunciation guide,may enlight me about /il/as in pencil,then /le/as in table. Do these ones have the o sound?

  14. Tukesiga Amosi,
    For a helpful spelling pronunciation, think of the il in pencil as having a short i sound /il/. In speech, many speakers pronounce it as if the i had a short u sound, /pen-sul/. Same goes for the sounds in table.

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