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Most of the references I can find about the word “ought” indicate that even when negating it, you should use an infinitive: “You ought not to go there.”

That sounds quite bad to my ear. Much better sounding to me is “You ought not go there.” Without the “to”.

Comparing this to similar usage of “should” does no good, since they can’t even agree without negation: “should go” versus “ought to go”.

Now that I think about it, I am suddenly far from certain that “ought to go” actually contains an infinitive in the first place; maybe “ought to” works together as some part of speech that modifies the verb, rather than “to go” being a unit.

I’m obviously no linguist. Can someone shed some light on this for me? Specifically, can you explain the function/part-of-speech of each word in a way that makes it clear whether "to go" or "go" is more correct?

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3 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I agree with Peter Shor's answer, however, looking at this phrase in the COCA corpus, there seems to be an exception that is most prevalent in spoken English where ought not be is a frequent although still less common alternative to ought not to be. For example:

...one could argue then that President Bush ought not be succeeding.

2005 Tavis Smiley, PBS

Searching a selection of classic texts I found no instances of ought not be, and British English also appears to reject omission of the 'to' in negative ought. So I would tentatively conclude that this is a development in contemporary American English.

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That is a very interesting app. If I'm reading it correctly, it seems as though in a full 30% of cases of "ought not", it is in my preferred construction — followed by a word other than "to". In 12% of cases it is followed by "be" and in 18% it's followed by some other word. –  75th Trombone Jul 30 '11 at 6:24
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Yes this seems to be the case. Yours appears to be an accepted construction in contemporary US English. But I found classical and British writers always use 'to'. Have updated the answer to reflect this. –  z7sg Ѫ Jul 30 '11 at 10:37
    
Google NGrams agrees; ought not be seems to be found without to only in American English, and only in the last century or so. –  Peter Shor Jul 30 '11 at 15:33
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It's usually ought not to. The Google Ngram below shows that most of the time ought not is used, it is the first two words of ought not to. Many of the remaining cases appear to be constructions like ought not publicly to, with an adverb between the not and the to.

enter image description here

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+1 You can also do similar comparisons for e.g. "ought not to go" vs "ought not go" and see that the former is hugely more common (though in any case, use of "ought" has declined hugely in the 20th century). –  Neil Coffey Jul 30 '11 at 1:50
    
Here is the link to that comparison. –  Daniel Jul 30 '11 at 12:51
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Maybe things have changed in just a few years, but a Google search reveals:

"ought not go" is 30 times as common as "ought not to go"; "ought not do" is 4 times as common as "ought not to do"; "ought not be" is about 25% more common than "ought not to be."

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