Q&A: Nought or naught?

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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