'Ruff' vs 'Rough': What's the Difference?

By Katie Moore, updated on August 29, 2023

‘Ruff’ vs ‘Rough’: What’s the difference? When words sound the same, it can be harder to tell them apart without seeing them written down or without having proper context. There are plenty of steps to take when learning new words to make sure you understand the word holistically, and we’re here to give you the tools to do so.

In a hurry? Here’s a quick preview of what you’ll learn:

  • ‘Ruff’ is a word that refers to an Elizabethan frill worn around the neck. 
  • ‘Rough’ is a word that refers to an uneven and not smooth surface. 

What’s the Difference Between ‘Ruff’ vs ‘Rough’?

Words like ‘Ruff’ vs ‘Rough,’ which clearly appear differently on paper yet are less obviously distinct when we hear them aloud, can be tricky to learn at first. This is because they are what’s known as homophones.

  • Homophones are words that have different definitions and are spelled differently but sound exactly the same. The word comes from the Latin ‘homo’ which means “same,” and ‘phone’ which means “sound.”

How can we tell these words apart out of context? Well, this seems like the perfect time to tap into some language tricks. 

A primary difference between these two words is their parts of speech.

  • ‘Rough’ is an adjective, meaning it refers to a description or quality.
  • ‘Ruff’ is a noun, meaning it refers to an object or thing,
  • 'Ruff’ is also a word for a kind of fish, and we can use the ‘ff’ at the end of the word to connect to the ‘f’ at the beginning of the word ‘fish.’ We know fish are things, not qualities, so we can connect all these dots to remember that ‘Ruff’ is the noun. 

Making connections like this can certainly help when you are getting started learning new words, but words like ‘Ruff’ vs ‘Rough’ can be confusing, given they have multiple definitions in themselves. So, let’s take a closer look individually at these new words. 

Definition of ‘Ruff’: What Does it Mean? 

According to Oxford Languages, ‘Ruff’ is a noun that means: 

  • A projecting starched frill worn around the neck, characteristic of Elizabethan and Jacobean costume
    • “An Elizabethan ruff.”
  • A projecting or conspicuously colored ring of feathers or hair around the neck of a bird or mammal
    • “A ruff of long pointed feathers.”
  • A northern Eurasian wading bird, the male of which has a large variously colored ruff and ear tufts in the breeding season, used in display
  • An edible marine fish of Australian inshore waters that is related to the Australian salmon
  • An act of ruffing or opportunity to ruff
    • “He gave his partner a spade ruff.”
  • One of the basic patterns of drumming consists of a single note preceded by either two grace notes played with the other stick or three grace notes played with alternating sticks
  • A freshwater fish of the perch family, with a greening-brown back and yellow sides and underparts

As a verb the word ‘Ruff’ can also mean:

  • (in bride, whist, and similar card games) Play a trump in a trick which was led in a different suit
    • “Declarer ruffed and then led a heart.”
  • Play a trump on a card in another suit
    • “South ruffs a low spade.”

Note that in some languages, mainly English, ‘Ruff’ is also used to describe the bark of a dog and will be used as a sound stand-in when teaching children what sound animals make. In this case, 'Ruff' is an onomatopoeia — a word that mimics the sound it refers to. 

Synonyms of ‘Ruff’

  • Collar
  • Choker
  • Dicky
  • Frill
  • Neckband
  • Mane
  • Fur
  • Bunch
  • Fish
  • Cluster

Antonyms of ‘Ruff’

  • Rise
  • Precede
  • Naked
  • Refrain
  • Recede

Phrases with ‘Ruff’

  • The dog says ruff ruff
  • A colorful ruff
  • Ruff n’ tuff 
  • Fishing for ruff
  • Elizabethan ruff

Definition of ‘Rough’: What Does it Mean?

According to Oxford Languages, ‘Rough’ is an adjective that means: 

  • Having an uneven or irregular surface; not smooth or level
    • “They had to carry him across the rough, stony ground.”
  • (of a person or their behavior) not gentle; violent or boisterous
    • “Strollers should be capable of withstanding rough treatment.”
  • (of an area or occasion) characterized by or notorious for the occurrence of violent behavior
    • “The workmen hate going to the rough areas of town.”
  • (of the weather or the sea) wild and stormy
    • “The lifeboat crew braved the rough seas to rescue a boat.”
  • Not finished tidily or decoratively; plain and basic
    • “The customers sat at a rough wooden table.”
  • Put together without the proper materials or skill, makeshift
    • “He had one arm in a rough sling.”
  • Lacking sophistication or refinement
    • “She took care of him in her rough, kindly way.”
  • Not worked out or correct in every detail
    • “He had a rough draft of his new novel.”
  • (of a voice) harsh and rasping
    • “His voice was rough with barely suppressed fury.”
  • (of wine or another alcoholic drink) sharp or harsh in taste
  • Difficult and unpleasant or unfair
    • “The teachers gave me a rough time because my image didn’t fit.”
  • Unwell
    • “The altitude had hit her, and she was feeling a bit rough.”

As an adverb, the word ‘Rough’ means: 

  • In a manner that lacks gentleness, harshly or violently
    • “Treat’em rough, but treat’em fair.”

As a noun, ‘Rough’ can also mean:

  • A disreputable and violent person
    • “The rear of the column was attacked by roughs.”
  • (on a golf course) longer grass around the fairway and the green
    • “His second shot went in the rough.”
  • A preliminary sketch for a design
    • “I did a rough to work out the scale of the lettering.”
  • An uncut precious stone
    • “Miner discovered the biggest diamond rough in history.”

Finally, as a verb, the word ‘Rough’ means:

  • Work or shape something in a rough, preliminary fashion
    • “The piece of glass is now roughed into a circular form.”
  • Make uneven
    • “The water was roughed by the wind.”
  • Live in discomfort with only basic necessities
    • “She had to rough it alone in a dive.”

Synonyms of ‘Rough’

  • Choppy
  • Bumpy
  • Uneven
  • Coarse
  • Harsh
  • Rugged
  • Turbulent
  • Raw
  • Unpolished
  • Nasty
  • Sketchy
  • Approximate
  • Uncertain

Antonyms of ‘Rough’

  • Calm
  • Gentle
  • Easy
  • Flat
  • Mild
  • Courteous
  • Refine
  • Smooth
  • Agreeable
  • Pleasant
  • Sophisticated

Phrases with ‘Rough’

  • Rough seas
  • Feeling rough
  • A rough time
  • Diamond in the rough
  • Rough conditions
  • Rough and ready
  • A bit of rough

Pronunciations: How to Pronounce ‘Ruff’ vs ‘Rough’

Writing is only half the battle when learning new words, and if you can’t speak the words you learn, there’s no point in memorizing a bunch of definitions. Let’s make sure you have all the tools to say these new words correctly. 

Use this phonetic spelling of ‘Ruff’ and ‘Rough’ as a guide: 

  • ‘Ruh-ff’ (remember the ‘gh’ at the end of a word is the same as the double ‘ff,’ and for both spellings, the vowels are a relaxed sound as in “run”)

How to Use ‘Ruff’ vs ‘Rough’ in a Sentence

The final step to learning new words is feeling confident using them in your writing and conversations. Here are some sample sentences for you to look at and get a sense of how these words work. 

‘Ruff’ Example Sentences

  • All of the Elizabethan era royal portraits portrayed the rulers wearing large ruffs
  • The nature documentary on exotic birds included a segment about male birds displaying their ruffs during mating dances. 
  • On their trip to Australia, they decided to go out for seafood and tried the ruff to see how it compared to fish back home. 
  • The marching band drummers drilled their ruffs for hours to make sure they were in sync and on time.

‘Rough’ Example Sentences

  • After sailing over a patch of particularly rough water, he was feeling very queasy and seasick. 
  • She threw together a couple of rough sketches of ideas for her dress designs for her new fashion line. 
  • His friends gave him a rough time after he asked out his crush and got rejected in the middle of the cafeteria. 
  • The family was concerned when their car broke down in a notoriously rough part of town in the middle of the night.

‘Ruff’ vs ‘Rough’ Example Sentences

  • She regretted saying yes to wearing a ruff with her costume because the fabric was rough against her neck and itched her skin. 
  • The scientists had a rough idea of the mating dance patterns of the animals that displayed their ruffs.

Final Advice on ‘Ruff’ vs ‘Rough’

While navigating homophones can be tricky at first, especially when the words aren’t written in front of you, the more care you put into mastering the words holistically, the easier it will be. Remember that context clues are especially helpful and important when using homophones, especially when the individual words have multiple definitions. 

Need a recap? Here’s a quick review of what was covered: 

  • Homophones are words that have different spellings and different definitions but are pronounced the same. 
  • ‘Ruff’ is a noun that describes a frilly collar on both humans and animals. 
  • Meanwhile, ‘Rough’ is an adjective that describes something coarse and not smooth, as well as harsh or difficult. 

Be sure to check out other confusing word articles to learn how to tackle more homophones and learn more tips and tricks to navigate tricky word pairs. Remember to be confident in your word use and be clear in your communication, and you’ll be an English language pro in no time.

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Written By:
Katie Moore
Katie is a recent graduate of Occidental College where she worked as a writer and editor for the school paper while studying linguistics and journalism. She loves helping others find their voice in writing and making their work the strongest it can be. Katie also loves learning and speaking other languages and wants to help make writing accessible for everyone.

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