Easily Confused Words: Bough vs. Bow

Bough and bow are easily confused words.

The spell-check application of most word processing software programs would not catch a slip-up of these two words. Spell-check is looking for words that aren’t in its dictionary, and words that resemble words in its dictionary but are possibly spelled wrong. Spell-check isn’t perfect. It doesn’t know and can’t guess what word you wanted or what word you meant, it can only judge the words on the page. If you used words that are all spelled correctly, it gives you a pass anyway.

Autocorrect suggests words that start with the same letters. It’s suggesting what word you may want to save time, but quite often, its suggestions are pretty off base. They don’t help you out, but they do make you laugh.

Bough (pronounced “b + ows”; rhymes with wow, cow, sow) is a noun. It means the limbs of a tree, or branches of a leafy plant. It’s a word you don’t hear often beyond song lyrics, like Christmas carols or lullabies.

For example: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” says to hang a star upon the highest bough. “Deck the Halls” says to Deck the halls with boughs of holly. The lullaby Rockabye Baby says “When the bough breaks, the cradle with fall.”

Bow (pronounced “b+ oww”; rhymes with wow, cow, sow) has multiple forms:

  • As a verb, to bow means to bend forward at the waist, typically after someone has performed onstage for an audience. In some cultures, like Japan, bowing is part of an introduction as a sign of respect.
  • As a noun, in the nautical world, bow is the front part of a ship or boat.
  • As a noun, “bow wow” is used to describe a dog’s bark. It’s an example of onomatopoeia. This meaning has been used for musician’s or band’s names, and in song, George Clinton’s Atomic Dog.

So what about bow (pronounced “boh”; rhymes with low, flow, mow)? It’s a noun.

  • It means an arch, like a rainbow.
  • It also means the wood apparatus an archer uses to shoot arrows.
  • It can also mean a knotted loop of ribbon used for decoration. For example, for gift topper or a fashion statement. Bowtie, hair bow, gift bow, etc.

The following story uses bough and bow (boww) correctly:

For Christmas, many towns decorate the boughs of their larger trees with Christmas lights. It’s as traditional as a performer taking a bow after a performance. As an added benefit, it brightens up the streets during a darker, otherwise gloomy season of the year. Streetlamps are decorated with wreaths, bows, and/or lights.


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