Easily Confused Words: Aught vs. Ought

Aught and Ought 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.

Aughts (pronounced “awts”) is a plural noun. It’s another word for zeros. It’s used mainly when expressing the first decade of any new century, like the 2000-2009, in writing.

  • As a pronoun, it can also mean “in any degree” or “at all.”

Ought (pronounced “awt”) is an auxiliary verb (that is not the same as an adverb.)

Ought means a task that may not be required, but it is expected by a recipient, or the crowd at large. Other auxiliary verbs include should, would, and could.

The following story uses both words correctly:

Augusta was grading biographical papers she had assigned to her English class at Tallawallawhatchie Community College. One student, Asa, had written he graduated elementary school in “ninety-nine” and high school in “oh-seven.” She made on note on the corner of his paper:

“You ought to write these years in the correct format. It should say I finished grammar school in nineteen ninety nine. I finished the rest of grammar school in the aughts, or more precisely, I graduated high school in two thousand and seven.”

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