Q&A: Nought or naught?

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's all been for naught…

Q: Hey AWC, I have a good question this week.

A: We’ll be the judge of that.

Q: Right. So, you know the feeling when all your efforts have amounted to nothing?

A: Constantly.

Q: Well, in the phrase “it’s all been for ____” – what’s the word? I’ve seen it written three different ways.

A: Well, people are allowed to have different handwriting.

Q: Oh ha ha. I meant three different words: “all been for naught”, “nought” and “not”. So, which is it?

A: You ought to know. We thought you would. It’s caught you out. And brought no good.

Q: Thanks Dr. Seuss – but I do not like this, no I don’t. Green eggs and English, no I won’t.

A: Alright, let’s take a look. You have three options which would sound similar, and this is what has caused the confusion.

Q: Yes, well done. Gather 'round everyone, genius at work…

A: Hey, we’re getting there. First, let’s eliminate contestant three – “not” doesn’t make sense here, grammatically or in any other way.

Q: So what of naught and nought? It’s the second one right? As in “noughts and crosses”?

A: Well, “nought” is older. It comes from Old English, a variant of “nowiht” – meaning nothing. It dates way back to around 1200 and would go on to be the word for the symbol “0” by the 1500s.

Q: So it IS “nought”! You could have just said so.

A: Naught so fast.

Q: Oh dear.

A: You see, “naught” was a slightly later variant of “nowiht” – again meaning “nothing”. It ALSO came to mean “0” by the 1500s – although along the way it picked up an extra “wicked evil act” meaning – which is where we get the word “naughty” from.

Q: Speaking of naughty… what did the lover say when caught in bed with the word “naught”?

A: Just tell us.

Q: “It meant nothing to me!” Hahahahaaa.

A: Hilarious.

Q: But hang on. If “nought” and “naught” BOTH mean nothing, which is the correct one in the phrase?

A: These days, the universally accepted phrase is “all for naught”.

Q: Wow, seriously? So the apprentice became the master! Is “nought” still used at all?

A: Well yes. In British English (Australia included), “nought” is still the preferred spelling of the symbol “0” and used in the game “noughts and crosses”.

Q: But in America, they don’t like “nought” at all?

A: Correct. They’ve kept things simple and go with “naught” for the symbol “0” as well as the phrase “all for naught”. No flip flopping for them.

Q: But what about the game – how do they spell THAT?

A: That’s easy. They just decided to call it “tic-tac-toe” instead!

Q: Those Americans think of everything. Anyway, I have nothing to add.

A: Nothing in it really.

Q: Thanks for nothing.

A: It was nothing.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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