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Aught

Aught is a pronoun meaning anything whatever. Though the word has an archaic ring in the U.S., it is fairly common outside North America, especially in the U.K., where it’s a dialectal synonym of anything.

Aught is an ancient word. It goes back to Old English in various forms, and though it has taken many spellings over the centuries, its meaning has remained consistent through history. It means the same today as it did a thousand years ago, and unlike many other old words, it has not piled on secondary meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary lists a couple of definitions in addition to the first, but these are very rarely used.

Aught‘s old age and straightforward meaning notwithstanding, there is a relatively new tendency to use it in place of nought and naughtwhich mean, respectively, zero and nothing—especially in reference to the years between 2001 and 2009. In the U.S., people often describe the first decade of the 21st century as the aughts, and they might say, for instance, aught four for 2004. In this use, aught is synonymous with zero.

Aught is also not to be confused with ought, the synonym of should.

Examples

These writers use aught in its conventional sense:

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Her hands are so exquisitely formed, so slender, one could imagine them breaking beneath aught heavier than a bit of chiffon. [quoted in The Daily Gleaner]

The drunk always believes that aught he does or says is witty. [Telegraph]

Irony: they’re despised for talking empty verbiage but they talk empty verbiage because their interrogators make aught else risk [Herald Scotland]

Aught vs. ought

Mistaken use of aught in place of ought, meaning should (with to) is surprisingly common. In each of these examples, aught should be changed to ought:

SANDAG will accept comments from the public on what kinds of items aught to be considered in the formal environmental impact report. [North County Times (link now dead)]

No doubt, the same policy will aught to extend in entire Manipur state by the department. [Kangla Online]

And those on medication for heart or blood pressure aught to remember taking it before the game. [KENS 5]

Of course, ought does have a rarely used secondary sense that makes it synonymous with nought, which by extension brings it close to aught, but that doesn’t change the fact that aught for ought as a synonym of should is a misspelling.

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Comments

  1. Heygraham says:

    So is it double-aught buckshot #00 or double-ought?

  2. Or double-‘ought… the apostrophe taking the place of the “n”.

  3. While it may not be grammatically correct, the use of ought or aught in place of zero seems to have been around for a long time. Shotgun round ’00’ as mentioned by Heygraham. Rifle round 30.06. Garey Indiana class of 05 from ‘The Music Man’ referring to the year 1905. Even though this is technically incorrect, the question is which is the ‘correct’ incorrect spelling or usage?

  4. Donne ☥ says:

    > In each of these examples, aught should be changed to ought:

    So aught ought not be aught, but ought?

  5. Clearly, these little pearls of wisdom above weren’t written by a Briton.’Aught’ is not “especially common” in the UK at all! I mean, I live there. Never, ever heard it, not no way no how. Seen it in print plenty times…old poetry, that type of thing.
    Please, it’s not the Middle Ages over here…

    • sourcesplease says:

      Actually it’s still fairly common in the north of England, in a slightly colloquialised form.

      ‘Owt’ and ‘nowt’, from ‘aught’ and ‘naught’.

      “Do you want owt from’t shops?”
      “Nowt for me, thanks.”

      • Yep. You’re right. Thanks for that. It’s still not “common” though, is it?
        Don’t tell me it’s used in other areas…

        • sourcesplease says:

          Well, there is also the Scots form: ocht

          That said, I don’t know any more about it, but I definitely don’t claim intimate knowledge of the varied and complex regional colloquialisms of the UK! Just because I don’t hear it in London doesn’t mean it isn’t rampant somewhere else.

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