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Your Head Will Spin: "Naught," "Aught," and "Ought"

If someone says "I know aught about football," the amount of knowledge could be a lot or nothing. That's because "aught" can mean "everything," or "zero."

In British English, it often means "all," as in "for aught I know, football uses a round ball." In the US, it more commonly means "nothing." Garner's Modern American Usage says that was originally a mistake. "By error," Garner's says, "a nought (= a zero) was widely misconstrued as an aught. Thus, aught has come—mistakenly—to bear the sense ‘zero.'" Someone saying "I was born in aught eight" might be British, where "aught" is fairly common for "zero"; old-fashioned; just old; or from an area of the US where "aught" is dialect. And, of course, there's the "aught," "double-aught," and "triple-aught" that designate the size of the buckshot in a shotgun shell.

Garner's says "aught" for "zero" is fully standard English. But be aware that Brits, in particular, might be saying something greater than zero, so you "ought" to avoid it unless the context is crystal clear.

"Ought" is also a variant spelling of "aught," mostly in British English, but most of the time, it means "should." You can tell when it's being used in the sense of an obligation, because it's usually accompanied by the infinitive form of another verb: "You ought to know more about football." As a negative, though, there's "aught" reason to use it: As a usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of English says: "Usages such as He hadn't ought to come and She shouldn't ought to say that are common in many varieties of American English. They should be avoided in written English, however, in favor of the standard ought not to."

Then there's "naught." It also means "nothing," though many dictionaries say that usage is archaic or restricted to literary uses. It most often appears in phrases like "His studying was for naught, since he flunked." "Naught" is also considered a variant spelling of "nought," and sometimes either one can be correct: Webster's New World College Dictionary says that a battleship can be either a "dreadnaught" or a "dreadnought." (Most other dictionaries prefer the "naught" spelling.) Of course, it's the heavily armed warship that "dreads nothing," not the people facing down its guns.

And if you're wondering, yes, "naughty" is derived from "naught," as in someone who has "naught" morals or manners. But "naughty" originally meant "poor," someone who had "naught."

As a rule of thumb, "nought" (or "aught") is preferred when dealing with numbers, while "naught" is preferred outside of math. "I ought to know better, but I know naught about the difference between aught and nought" is a sentence sure to make more than one head spin.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday September 29th 2014, 8:45 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
There's also "nowt," rhymes with "out," which got new legs in the UK many years ago with this commercial about "bread with nowt taken out": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=raJRe7J5m6g
Monday September 29th 2014, 11:36 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Following up on Orin's comment: I've been enjoying the BBC series "Last Tango in Halifax" and "Happy Valley," both of which are set in contemporary Yorkshire. When they're not in formal situations (school, church) characters from all economic backgrounds use "nowt" and "owt."
Tuesday September 30th 2014, 11:42 AM
Comment by: Joe ..."crazy about words" (greenport, NY)
My mother, born in Glasgow, said "nowt" for the first half of her American life. We kids and our father teased her about it mercilessly. When she finally stopped using it in her middle age, we missed the sweet sound of her saying it.
I remember asking her why she changed and she replied, "It just changed on its own."

She also taught us "nought" for zero, which the nuns appreciated, but the other kids made fun of.

I hear people nowadays using "oughtn't to" frequently. It's a fantastic language we have!

Joe Mc Kay
author, "Crazy About Words"
Saturday November 8th 2014, 9:47 PM
Comment by: Rudolf M. (Almonte Canada)
Why do so many tell me : "you are not supposed to do this" about things I do that are not permitted. I never know what I am supposed to say or do.

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