Q&A: ‘Taught’ vs ‘taut’ vs ‘taunt’

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, taught-ology…

Q: Hi AWC, what’s the deal with “taught” and “taut”?

A: Two completely different words. Nothing to see here.

Q: Except there IS something to see. I saw it in my friend’s story yesterday. It read, “the rope was pulled taught” … but that’s not how I was taught!

A: Haha, calm down. And yes, you WERE taught right. The word “taught” is indeed the past tense (and past participle) of the verb “teach”. It came from the Old English “tahte” during the 1300s.

Q: And to be self-taught?

A: That term followed much later, around 1725 according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Q: My uncle is a self-taught saxophone player.

A: Oh, that’s nice. Is he good?

Q: Oh no, he’s terrible. Can’t play a single tune. He really should have had some lessons…

A: Ummm, okay. So, now let’s look at “taut” – the word your friend SHOULD have used in their story.

Q: I knew it!

A: “Taut” is an adjective described by Macquarie Dictionary as “​​tightly drawn; tense; not slack”. And as you might expect considering such a different meaning, it’s not related to teach/taught at all.

Q: I did expect that, yes.

A: “Taut” is also the older of the two words – arriving into English during the 1200s.

Q: When you say that, I always imagine a fresh-faced word jumping off a ship, ready to start a new life in England. 

A: That’s quite ridiculous, but a fun image.

Q: I know, right? I can hear the seagulls now, the ropes pulled taut against the wharf…

A: Well, as far as where your ship had sailed from, “taut” was possibly an offshoot of the Old English word “toen”, meaning to pull or drag. The same root word gave us “tow” and “tie”. But another etymological theory traces it back to a similar path of the word “tough”. It’s unclear.

Q: So what you’re saying is that not only was there heavy fog on the morning the good ship Etymology sailed into port, but “taut” also snuck off without filling out any paperwork?

A: Something like that, yes. Interestingly, in its early life, “taut” wasn’t spelt that way. Can you guess HOW it was spelt?

Q: Surely not… Was it spelt “taught”?

A: It was!

Q: Oh English, WHY do you keep shooting yourself in the foot!

A: Haha, it can be frustrating. The good news is that by the 1500s, “taut” had settled on its current-day spelling as well as the final “tightly drawn” meaning. 

Q: Why do people use “taught” instead then?

A: Besides simply not realising “taut” is a word, it’s likely that the similar “-ght” form of “tight” and “taught” leads them to assume those words are related. They’re not.

Q: So that’s the end of the confusion!

A: Not quite.

Q: Sorry, what?

A: It’s probably also worth mentioning the word “taunt” at this point. Again, it’s a completely different word – a verb meaning “to reproach or mock” as well as a noun of that same thing – “a scornful reproach or gibe”. 

Q: Example?

A: “Bullies taunted the boy and their taunts were heard through the streets.”

Q: Poor kid. I would have taught them a lesson.

A: Anyway, despite it once more being unrelated, ”taunt” is often mistakenly used for something that is being pulled tightly, when the correct word should be “taut”.

Q: So is there some way to remember it?

A: “Taut” has just four letters – it is the shortest word because it has been pulled tight. That’s really all you need to know. The other words simply mean other things!

Q: Fair enough. So, what about Tweety Bird?

A: What about Tweety Bird?

Q: Well, he “taut” he taw a puddy tat, right?

A: Haha. It’s true that I Taut I Taw a Puddy Tat WAS the original spelling in a 1950 song by the cartoon creator Mel Blanc, the spelling was later changed to “tawt”.

Q: Fascinating! Or, as Sylvester the Cat would taunt, “Sufferin Succotash!”

A: Believe it or not, it’s not the first time we’ve discussed “succotash” – check out our conversation on “squash vs quash” if you want to be taught some more!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

Browse posts by category
Browse posts by category

Courses starting soon


Nice one! You've added this to your cart