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What is the difference between You should go and You ought to go? I rarely use the latter.

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Good question! I have also wondered about this. –  BBischof May 29 '11 at 15:40
    
Is it possible that "should" demonstrates a proactive approach fueled by internal motivation or sense of obligation to do what is good or right, whereas "ought to" refers to a reactive approach fueled by fear of negative consequences from an external authority (external sense of obligation)? –  user50650 Aug 27 '13 at 16:31

5 Answers 5

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Semantically, there is no real difference between the two constructions, and they can be used interchangeably. I agree with you that "should" has become the far more common construction.

Even back to the Old English (and earlier Proto-Germanic), the words carry a nearly identical sense of obligation. As such, I'd be hard pressed to articulate even a minor connotative difference between the two forms in modern usage.

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I am very suspicious of your second paragraph. ‘Ought’ is in origin the past tense of ‘owe’, and it was not used in the modern sense until at least the 12th century—tracing it back to Proto-Germanic (which is a good many steps earlier than Old English!) is nonsensical and anachronistic. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 27 '13 at 16:38

Palmer (The English Verb) distinguishes three uses of should.

  1. to lay a tentative obligation You should come to the party tomorrow. (ought to and should are completely interchangeable)
  2. to express a probability They should be at their destination by now. (ought to is theoretically possible, but is rarely used with this meaning)

  3. evaluative should It's strange that he should say such a thing. (ought to is not used)

Palmer, the English Verb/This forum

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I don't think ought to is particularly rare used in the second meaning. I agree that only should is used for the third. –  Peter Shor Oct 27 '11 at 10:37

The difference, in so far as there is one at all, lays with how much the speaker agrees with the obligation. I think.

You should go implies that the speaker (as well as possibly other people) thinks you should go.

You ought to go implies that, while there is clearly an obligation to go on your part, the speaker might not agree with it. Or at least reserves the right to not agree with it, even if he does think it's a good idea in the instant case.

This difference is very, very subtle, and may only exist in my mind.

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I don't think that this exists only in your mind. However, I do think that they can be used interchangeably, even in such a circumstance, as long as the correct tone of voice is used. –  John Gietzen Nov 12 '10 at 20:40

I'm not a native speaker and I came around to brush up my English, so this is not an answer, rather a sub-question, but I was pretty sure that should was a moral, interpersonal statement while ought to referred to a nearly logical necessity or an objectively preferable course of action. So... did that difference "only exist in my mind" ? > Then it would explain why "the speaker might not agree" with what is ought, as he not so personally involved in a moral/ethical 'pronouncement'.

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‘An A-Z of English Grammar and Usage’ by Leech and others says:

You can always use should instead of ought to.

In their ‘Cambridge English Grammar’, Carter and McCarthy tell us that:

Should is much more frequent than ought to, in referring to both what is desirable and what is likely.

Tags for clauses with ought to often occur with should, instead of ought

. . . . . . . . . .

Interrogatives and negatives with ought are rare; should is generally preferred instead

Elsewhere in the book they say:

Should is used to hedge conclusions and predictions, but it expresses confidence in the probability that a situation will occur in a particular way

They don't say whether or not ought to can be used in this way. The implication is that it can not, but I would not entirely rule it out.

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protected by RegDwigнt Oct 16 '13 at 7:28

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