Taught or Tought: Which Spelling Is Correct?

Both spoken and written English has undergone continuous change over centuries — no more so than in its spelling. For example, is it “taught” or “tought,” and what is the past tense of “teach”?

There is no such word as “tought” in common usage today. Taught is correct both as the past tense and past participle form of the verb “teach.” However, “taught” does have some homophones — words we pronounce the same way — in “taut” and “tort.”

This article will examine the homonyms of “taught” and why such a spelling error might occur. We’ll also look at using the irregular verb form “taught” as the past tense and past participle of “teach.”

Modern English has developed from 5th-century Old English or Anglo-Saxon to the Middle English of the 11th-century Norman conquests — think Geoffrey Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales — via the language of Shakespeare and Milton. We picked up some odd spelling irregularities along the way.

English Spelling: Taught vs. Tought

We have seen in a related article, “Weird or Wierd: Which Is Correct?,” that it is quite common for writers to misspell some words in English by mixing up vowels. Several vowel combinations can make the same sound in English, which is the case with “taught” and “tought.”

Also, there are at least two other identical-sounding words in English but with very different spelling than “taught.”

We will learn more about the common phenomenon where English words can sound the same, have different spelling, and have very different meanings. Grammarians call these words homophones, from the Greek words “homos” (the same) and “phono” (sound).

We also spell some words the same, but they have different meanings (homographs), while other words look the same, but we pronounce them differently. Collectively, we refer to these as homonyms. Sounds confusing? It can be at first, but not after we look at some examples.

What Does Tought Mean?

The words “taught” and “tought” sound the same and even seem related in spelling to other English words like “thought” and “though.” But there is no such word as “tought” in today’s modern English.

“Tought” is either a misspelling of “taught” or a typo for words like “thought,” “though,” or “tough.” You’ll notice that Ngram Viewer provides no comparison between “taught” and “tought.” 

If it makes you feel any better, though, there was once an adjective “tohte” in Middle English, and one of the variant spellings was “tought” (source).

Tohte” was the origin of the modern English “taut,” a homonym of “taught,” meaning something stretched or pulled tight, as in a “taut rope.” It is unrelated to the verb “taught,” which comes from Old English tahte, the past tense of taecan, which meant to demonstrate, instruct, persuade, or train (source).

What Does Taught Mean? 

Taecan” is the word from which we derive the verb “teach,” the past tense and past participle of which is “taught.” To teach is to help someone learn how to do something or to guide them in their studies on a subject.

Taught Is an Irregular Past Tense Form

English is full of what grammarians call “irregular” constructions, meaning that a word or grammatical structure may not follow a standard pattern or rule. 

“Taught” is an example of the irregular past tense form since, typically, to form the past tense of English words, we add -ed to the end. For example, “walk” becomes “walked” in the past tense, and “climb” becomes “climbed.”

As an irregular verb, “teach” does not follow this rule, so its past tense formation becomes “taught” — not “teached.” There are many other examples of irregular verb formations in the past tense. Here are just a handful of them:

Present tensePast tense
beginbegan
shakeshook
drinkdrank
freezefroze
speakspoke

Using the Past Tense and Past Participle

Now that we know “taught” is the past tense and past participle of the verb “teach,” what do these constructions — tense and participle — mean?

The Past Tense

Tense indicates time, and each verb has three main parts: present, past, and past participle. The past tense expresses an action that someone or something completed at a particular time in the past.

  • I taught history when I was at Oxford.
  • When I was at university, they taught us how to think.

The Past Participle

Like the past tense, the past participle is a special verb form usually ending in -ed, -d, or -t, but past participles sometimes end in -en or -n. We use past participles to form the perfect tense or the passive tense, and we can sometimes use them as adjectives (source).

Past participle in the present perfect tense:

He has taught me the art of fly-fishing.

Past participle in the past perfect tense:

Presenting the lecture was easy because I had taught the subject before.

Past participle in the active voice:

This experience taught me a lesson.

Past participle in the passive voice — the subject of the verb taught receives the action instead of performing it:

After this experience, I was taught a lesson.

Past participle functioning as an adjective:

She makes every taught subject seem easy.

You should revise all of the lessons taught.

Past participle phrase functioning as an adjective:

The class, taught in stages, understood the lesson.

Has Taught vs. Had Taught

Since “taught” can function as a past participle, could we say “has taught me” or “had taught me”?  Yes, we can, though it’s usually easier to just say “taught me.”

We can use helping verbs like “has,” “have,” or “had” with past participles to indicate actions that have happened at unspecified times in the past. “Has taught” would be the present perfect tense, while “had taught” would be the past perfect tense (source).

Present Perfect

We can apply the present perfect tense to indicate an action that happened at an unspecified time in the past, including those continuing into the future or ending recently.

Let’s look at some examples. 

She has taught me a lesson I won’t forget.

Here, the student learned the lesson at some time in the past; the lesson is over, but it remains with the student.

It can also specify actions that started in the past and continue to the present:

I have taught history since 2014.

Here, the action began at a time before now but continues to the present and may well continue into the future.

Past Perfect

The past perfect indicates a past action that ended before another action began in the past. In this example, we use “had” plus the past participle “taught.”

I wish they had taught me that before I graduated.

I had taught history to fifth grade until I began teaching the senior students.

Homographs, Homophones, and Homonyms

We touched on the meaning of these similar-sounding words earlier on. The word “homograph” contains the Greek (and Latin) words “homo” (meaning “the same”) and “graph” (to write), so a homograph has the same word spelling but a different meaning or pronunciation. 

The word “homophone” means having the same sound or voice, so the word has the same pronunciation but a different meaning or spelling. A “homonym” describes a word with the same name as another, referring to spelling, sound, or both. In other words, a homonym can be a homophone, a homograph, or both (source).

Consider the examples in the following tables.

HomographMeaningExample
liveTo exist or reside somewhereI live in New York City.
liveHappening or currentWe watched a live broadcast of the Mars landing.
HomophoneMeaningExample
hereIn this placeCome here right now!
hearaudibleCan you hear me speaking?

Our word “taught” has a few homophones, which we’ll examine next.

Taught, Taut, and Tort: Homophones of Taught

Two important homophones of “taught” are “taut” and “tort.” Neither word has anything to do with the verb “to teach,” nor are they related in their etymology — i.e., where the words originated.

“Taut” and “tort” are especially close to the ear most familiar with British English, where the “r” in “tort” is not as pronounced.

Taut

“Taut” is an adjective describing something tight or under tension, and we should not confuse it with the similar word “taunt,” which means to tease or make fun of someone. The opposite of “taut” is slack (source).

  • The tightrope walker balanced on the taut highwire. 

We can also use the word to describe a tense situation.

  • There was a taut final period in the game when the scores were evenly matched.

And lastly, it can refer to something in good order, neat and tidy. This is often in the context of the English idiom, “He ran a taut ship,” or a tight ship, meaning that things were organized and well managed, but it can also be nautical:

  • With her sails trimmed, everything on board was taut and shipshape.

Tort

“Tort”, on the other hand, is a legal term meaning a breach of legal duty — other than under contract — with liability for damages (source).

The major aim of tort law is to seek compensation for personal injury and damage to property. As such, the law handles tort actions as distinct from criminal actions, although some cases, like battery, fall under both tort and criminal law.

The word “tort” comes from the Latin “tortum,” meaning something that is “twisted, wrung, or crooked.” Tort most often refers to wrongful acts or harmful behavior involving physical attacks or interference with one’s possessions or their use and enjoyment, such as trespass.

It can also involve behavior that is harmful to a person’s honor, reputation, and privacy, resulting in claims for libel and slander. A successful tort claim typically results in the claimant receiving compensation for damages, or the offender receives an injunction to desist from further interference.

Why Are Some English Words So Hard to Spell?

In the early part of the 20th century, a Dutch teacher, Gerard Trenité, wrote a poem called “The Chaos” that highlighted the peculiarity of English spelling and pronunciation (source). 

The poem went through several iterations over the years, from its first publication as an appendix to his book in 1920, eventually accumulating 274 lines of verse and providing over 800 examples of problematic spelling and pronunciation.

Of special note for “taught” versus “tought” is the various ways we can pronounce the vowel combination “ou,” even with “gh.” The poem ends thus on an exasperated note:

Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough?
Hiccough has the sound of sup…
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

Why is English so irregular in its spelling and pronunciation? Well, mainly due to its history of development, where Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and French influences, each based on a variant blend of Germanic and the Latin lettering system, interacted with one another.

Where Did the “ought” and “aught” Come From?

One of the most challenging spelling changes in English to explain or justify is the use of words containing “ough” and “augh,” as their pronunciation can vary widely.

The Norman conquest of 1066 AD brought many French influences, leading to the shift from Old English to Middle English. Among the spelling changes they introduced were words including “ou” and “ght” (source).

Middle English also included various local dialects, but East Midland English gradually became dominant, especially after the influence of John Wycliffe and Geoffrey Chaucer. Spelling with “au” and the diphthongization before “h” with “g” occurred in Late Middle English (source). 

East Midland and London English spelled “taught” variously as “tahte,” “taught,” “taut,” “tauyte,”etc. Similarly, the spelling of Old English þoht became “thought,” and dohtor became “daughter.”

To further complicate spelling, after Chaucer’s death in 1400, English vowels began to shift dramatically from Late Middle English to Early Modern English in what linguists call the Great Vowel Shift.

Many spellings took root early on and gained acceptance through the new medium of printing. Meanwhile, the way people pronounced them rapidly changed as spelling failed to keep pace.

Choosing “ought” or “aught” 

While it’s challenging to come up with a rule for all cases, generally, we only use -aught to form the past participle of verbs that have an “a” in them, like “teach.” On the other hand, we tend to use -ought for verbs that don’t contain “a,” like “think,” which becomes “thought.”

Final Thoughts

“Taught” is the past tense and past participle of the verb “teach.” Most irregular verbs in the past tense receive -aught if they contain an “a” in their spelling, like “teach.”

“Tought” is an outdated variant spelling of “taut” from Middle English. “Taut” is a homophone of “taught” that describes tension and something that has no give or slack. 

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

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