• 3-minute read
  • 25th May 2020

Word Choice: Bow vs. Bough

It can be easy to mix up words that sound the same but have different meanings, such as “bow” and “bough.” So, how can you avoid errors when using these terms? Check out our tips below to find out.

Bow (A Gesture of Respect)

“Bow” has several meanings. One is as a verb or a noun to refer to bending the body (typically the neck, waist, or knee) as a gesture of respect:

Noun: The actors came back on stage to take a bow.

Verb: The knight bowed before the king.

Less frequently, “bow” can refer to the front part of a ship. For example:

The bow of the ship cut through the waves.

Both these senses of “bow” are pronounced to rhyme with “how” or “cow.” However, this word can also be pronounced to rhyme with “low.” In this case, it is a noun that refers to one of several things:

  • A weapon used to fire arrows (e.g., The hunter had made his own bow)
  • The tool used to play stringed instruments (e.g., Where’s my violin bow?)
  • A decorative knot (e.g., She wore a ribbon in a bow in her hair)

And even though the pronunciation differs depending on the context, “bow” is the correct spelling in all these cases.

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Bough (Branch of a Tree)

“Bough” is a noun that always refers to a large branch of a tree:

The owl perched on a bough of the oak tree.

The boughs were laden with fruit.

This term is always pronounced to rhyme with “how.”

A mossy bough.
(Photo: Acabashi/wikimedia)

Summary: Bow or Bough?

When you’re trying to work out which spelling to use, remember:

  • As a verb, bow always refers to bending the body in a gesture of respect. As a noun, it can be a gesture of respect, the front of a ship, a weapon, the tool used to play stringed instruments, or a decorative knot.
  • Bough is always a noun and refers to a large branch of a tree.

If you find all the definitions of “bow” tricky, don’t worry: As long as you can remember that “bough” is only used for a tree branch, you can be confident “bow” is the correct spelling in other situations. And to be sure you’ve got the right words in the right places, why not try our proofreading service?

Comments (4)
Bruce Faulkner
3rd March 2023 at 12:54
At no point in here did you differentiate the pronunciation between bow of a ship and a violin bow.
    10th March 2023 at 15:45
    Hi, Bruce. We mentioned in the first section of the article “Bow (A Gesture of Respect)” that the bow of a ship is pronounced to rhyme with “how” or “cow” and that a violin bow rhymes with “low.” We have another article here that you might be interested in; it goes a bit further into the topic and gives more examples - https://proofed.com/writing-tips/writing-tips-homophones-homographs-and-homonyms/. I hope this helps!
Jordan Gerecke
11th August 2023 at 15:31
You say that as a verb bow always means to bend one's body as a sign of respect, but you also bow (as in violin bow) instruments. Bowing is the technique of using a bow on an instrument.
    Hannah Orde
    19th September 2023 at 13:48
    Thanks Jordan! Great insight, and not one we'd thought of.

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