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Is "ought to" still used in modern English? If yes, in what contexts is it used, and is it used more in formal or informal cases?

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While the usage of ought to has been declining steadily in the last 300 years, it is still incredibly common. (The linked Ngram shows that it is roughly 1/3 as frequent as the word table today, and table is not at all an obscure word.) The question is when should you use it, and when to use should or must. –  Peter Shor Jul 25 '12 at 20:30
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Basically, if a word is used 1/3 as often as table, it is an incredibly common word. In my experience, it is still very common in positive statements, although it is not used as anywhere near as much in the negative. –  Peter Shor Jul 25 '12 at 20:45
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@Carlo_R I suspect you many have misunderstood what Ms Peters is saying. For a start, she specifically mentions non-fiction writing; implying that her assertion doesn't apply to fiction, or to spoken English. Also, the sentence that you quoted also says "ought still works affirmatively as a marginal modal". Yes, it's still used. It's still very common. I use it regularly (probably every day), both in spoken and written English. Peter's Ngram just confirms that I am not an exceptional case in this regard. –  user16269 Jul 26 '12 at 8:59
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@Mehper: I bet you had no idea this question was going to open such a can of worms! I think it's one of those pathological cases (in the mathematical sense of one whose properties are considered atypically bad), in that the word is (relatively) common, so competent speakers tend to have pretty clear ideas of acceptable usage in their own idiolect. But there's considerable variation relating to chronological period, geography, spoken/written register, etc. (as you oughta have realised by now! :) –  FumbleFingers Jul 26 '12 at 12:32
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@JSBձոգչ: Not that I really have a position here, but might you be able to explain to me (in chat?) why you don't think "usage" is a valid tag for this Q? –  FumbleFingers Jul 26 '12 at 12:36

5 Answers 5

up vote 31 down vote accepted

Is "ought to" still used in modern English?

Yes, it is. Quite a bit, in fact.

If yes, in what contexts is it used, and is it used more in formal or informal cases?

That’s an interesting question, because it turns out that ought can sometimes be quite formal, but it can sometimes be quite informal. It just depends how it’s used. Here are two examples from opposite ends of that register spectrum:

  • Ought we be placing our filthy feet on the davenport, young man? [VERY FORMAL, REPRIMANDING]
  • Ya think that’s somethin’, do ya? Ya oughta see my ol’ lady! [VERY INFORMAL]

The simple answer to your question is that ought gets used all the time, in all registers and speakers. It’s a perfectly normal word for expressing either obligation or probability. It is one of the lighter in strength of several nuanced alternatives in this list:

  • You ought to call home.
  • You should call home.
  • You have to call home.
  • You need to call home.
  • You must call home.

Whether the first or the second of those is the stronger in obligation depends on the speaker, but I have ordered them according to my own somewhat nebulous perception of increasing strength.

Like its close cousin should, modal ought also has a second sense having nothing to do with obligation, but only of possibility / probability / likelihood:

  • I ought to have enough by then.
  • I should have enough by then.
  • I may have enough by then.
  • I might have enough by then.

Those four are all about likelihood or probability, not obligation. The speaker believes it varyingly possible, or even probable, that they will have enough by then.

“Ought to” is so commonly used that you’ll sometimes see it written as “outta”, “oughta”, or “oughtta” by writers attempting to write in dialect, such as “Hey Mack, ya really outta getcherself a new broad!”

Ought works mostly like a modal auxiliary, no more admitting words like do, had, or will to the verb phrase than one involving should would. That’s because, per the OED, “as an auxiliary of predication it has become indefinite as to time.” These are therefore all ungrammatical in standard English:

  • *I’ll not ought to go by then.
  • *We won’t ought to go.
  • *We hadn’t ought to’ve gone.
  • *We didn’t ought to go.

Although some of those do occur in some speakers, they are considered highly non-standard, and would convey a very strong rustic or unlettered tone to any character in whose mouth you put such words. Indeed, the OED even goes so far as to label “did ought” as dialectic, colloquial, and vulgar, which is about as harsh a condemnation as it ever makes. Here’s one of its citations for this sort of “vulgarity” (in the classical sense :):

  • 1942 M. Innes Daffodil Affair i. 17 ― And I hope that none here will say I did anything I didn’t ought. For I only done my duty.

Obviously that speaker has other markers of education or station, such as the non-standard “I done”, reinforcing the picture we are to have of them.

In contrast, speakers who naturally use double modals (like “might should”) will do the same with ought, forming such constructs as might ought to. Since these are not ungrammatical in those speakers, constructions such as this one become possible: “You might ought to do something about that tire.” In contrast to the previous example, this one sounds merely folksy to my hear, not ungrammatical.

In my own particular flavor of English, whenever ought is used in the negative, the to particle in front of the following infinitive is always suppressed, making it in form just like the modal shouldn’t:

  • You oughtn’t be so picky.
  • You ought not enunciate so clearly: you’re spitting.
  • You ought never put your unhatched chickens to the count.

In the same way, for me the to is also suppressed when used in question inversion, although question inversion with ought sounds rather formal, perhaps even stuffy:

  • Ought we go now?

I can’t imagine it gets used much in first-person singular, perhaps because there are plenty of alternatives that come more readily to the tongue:

  • Ought I call you a cab?
  • Should I call you a cab?
  • Shall I call you a cab?
  • May I call you a cab?

In this regard of suppressing a following to under negation or inversion, modal ought behaves like modal need, which is also somewhat more formal-sounding:

  • You needn’t go so far as that. [NEGATION]
  • Need we really be so formal? [INVERSION]

From a purely syntactic viewpoint, you can swap in ought for need in both examples above without changing anything else. Regarding to-suppression, the Wiktionary entry for ought has this in its usage notes:

Ought is an auxiliary verb; it takes a following verb as its complement. This verb may appear either as a full infinitive (such as “to go”) or a bare infinitive (such as simple “go”), depending on region and speaker; the same range of meanings is possible in either case. Additionally, it’s possible for ought not to take any complement, in which case a verb complement is implied, as in, “You really ought to [do so].”

I do not know the geographic distribution of the to-suppression portions of Anglophonia, but it has been suggested that there are British speakers who require the to and American speakers who forbid it. If so, it may be that this is another one of those many forms of speech prevalent during colonization that wound up better preserved abroad than in Britain itself. Certainly there are plenty of citations of to-suppression in English literature from the 16th through the 19th centuries; here are a few from the OED:

  • 1589 Pasquil’s Ret. B, ― Her Maiestie layeth such a logge vppon their consciences, as they ought not beare.
  • 1601 Shaks. Jul. C. I. i. 3 ― You ought not walke Vpon a labouring day, without the signe Of your Profession.
  • 1648 Milton Tenure Kings (1650) 14 ― On the autority of Law the autority of a Prince depends and to the Laws ought submitt.
  • 1815 Zeluca III. 318 ― Do not get habituated to a word you ought never use.
  • 1868 Browning Agamemnon 796 ― How ought I address thee, how ought I revere thee?

To my ear, the Milton and the Browning sound archaic, having to-suppression in the positive, but those in the negative sound normal (as least insofar as the ought use is concerned). I don’t know why suppressing the to particle sounds slightly archaic when in the positive, but not at all so in the negative or under inversion, but it does.

The only completely obsolete use of ought that I am aware of is using it as the simple past tense of to owe. This is a non-modal use and so is subject to inflexions. The OED lists examples of oughteth, oughted, oughting, and says that all such use is either obsolete or dialectic, allowing for an apparently non-obsolete Scots use such as:

  • 1822 Scott Nigel v, ― We aught him the siller, and will pay him wi’ our convenience.

Or is that now also obsolete even in Scotland? I don’t know whether there are any Scots who might still say such a thing; perhaps so. But the rest of us would say “We owed him” there.

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@Carlo_R. References? For what? I’m a native speaker and a professional writer, and this is a trivial matter related to basic English usage. If I needed references, I’d vote to close as General Reference. –  tchrist Jul 25 '12 at 21:16
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@Carlo_R. Yes, of course it is perfectly correct to say we ought not think. It’s just a bit on the formal side of the register spectrum, that’s all. But it’s impeccably correct. I don’t give a fig whom I disagree with: it’s my language, as John Lawler is wont to say. And by extension, Carlo, it isn’t yours. Carlo, you really are not being very constructive around here. You might outta work on that. –  tchrist Jul 25 '12 at 22:19
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@AlexB.: it's a bit..um..forward, not particularly politic, but it's right (assuming sincerity on all sides). How you speak is how you speak and another can't tell you you're wrong. You may not be speaking their dialect or the culturally accepted 'standard', but that's not -wrong-. Actually...I suppose a native speaker may make a systematic error with respect to the standard that a non-native speaker may recognize as such. But tat's not the situation here. tchrist is being honest about his idiolect, Peters is talking about some standard we don't know (BrE? AmE? written English presumably). –  Mitch Jul 26 '12 at 0:56
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@tchrist Please understand that Carlo is neither a professional writer nor a native speaker. Like I said to him--there's no "right" English, so while he can't tell you how your dialect is spoken, you might want to refrain from telling him that he has no place questioning things. –  simchona Jul 26 '12 at 2:29
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@Mitch: I must admit I'm not impressed by Peters' contribution to this specific usage issue - but I am by tchrist's! And I do find that Carlo sometimes muddies the waters with unexplained, irrelevant, or misleading citations. tchrist has some justification for being needled, when his exceptionally comprehensive and self-consistent explication of one competent native speaker's usage is "criticised/denied/????" to no apparent purpose. –  FumbleFingers Jul 26 '12 at 2:45

Use ought to when you wish to emphasize that:

  • things aren't that way now.
  • and, you wish things to be that way.

I think ought to is slightly more formal but only in the very nature that it adds emphasis without invoking vulgarity, and that's usually formal.

Here is an example,

I know the users of english.stackexchange.com don't have the final say so on the decision to unban users, but they ought to have the final say so.

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Do you know what "Schleichwerbung" in German means? I don't know if "surreptitious advertising" is the correct translation. However, that is not part of an answer and -imho- does not belong to here. –  Em1 Jul 25 '12 at 19:50
    
It's additional information. What's wrong with that, where is that against the rules? –  Evan Carroll Jul 25 '12 at 19:53
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"without invoking vulgarity..." What do you mean? –  Robert Harvey Jul 25 '12 at 19:55
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(I for one don't have strong feelings this way or the other, because as far as the elections are concerned, that note might actually attract a couple more people who weren't even aware of them, and as far as your own candicacy goes, you'll be shooting yourself in the foot at best, which is your fair right, but as far as the rules go,) that bit was unrelated to the question at hand and too localized, i.e. obsolete in a couple weeks. –  RegDwigнt Jul 25 '12 at 19:58
    
Well, the new look&feel is much better, though ... Whatever –  Em1 Jul 25 '12 at 19:58

Pam Peters writes in The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (2004):

Ought seems to have reached the end of an evolutionary phase in which it might have become a fully fledged modal. But the trappings of its older identity as a lexical verb have hung around — in the fact that to is almost always there to link it with the following verb, and in the use of do support in negative statements. So while ought still works affirmatively as a marginal modal expressing obligation, it is otherwise replaced by modals such as should and must in non-fiction writing of all kinds, everywhere in the world.

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I perhaps am mistaken, but I've never read a sentence in which ought to is introduced by do in the negative (for example, "you don't ought to go the party uninvited"). I wonder if such statement is correct, or else if I have misunderstood what Ms Peters is claiming in your quotation. –  Paola Jul 25 '12 at 20:05
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In the U.S., you can't say "You didn't ought to work so late" unless you're south of the Mason-Dixon line. You should say "You ought not to work so late" or "You oughtn't to work so late" or "You oughtn't work so late". –  Peter Shor Jul 25 '12 at 20:34
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@Carlo_R: I think the Longman Grammar is wrong. Consider this Ngram. –  Peter Shor Jul 25 '12 at 20:55
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Gah! Is this a verbatim quote? If so, format it as a quote, give a link and then at least give an additional intelligent comment about its relevance. Otherwise, this is at most worthy of being a comment. –  Mitch Jul 25 '12 at 21:43
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@EvanCarroll Actually, you really can say the sun ought to be coming up around 8am tomorrow morning, in the sense that you believe this to be likely because you are not quite sure of the exact moment of sunrise, given that that moment changes daily. Ought can also be about probability, not just about obligation. –  tchrist Jul 25 '12 at 22:09

It is always interesting to read what individual native speakers of different English dialects think of this or that word or construction. However, even an educated native speaker with some background in linguistics can share his or her opinion that does not necessarily coincide with observable general trends/rules. To answer a question like this, one needs to do some research.

Incidentally, the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English is the bible for anyone who is seriously interested in descriptive English grammar. Obviously, it takes a bit longer to produce such a work than googling.

Now about the marginal modal "ought to". Unsurprisingly, it is pretty rare (breaking news!). It is not among the nine most frequent modal verbs (will, would, can, could, may, should, must, might, and shall). The verb "ought to" is (generally) so rare compared with other modal verbs that the authors of LGSWE decided to exclude it from most figures and even discussion in their grammar. That's why Geoffrey Leech said that

"One should not waste hours of valuable classroom time teaching shall and ought to!" (Leech 2003: 236)

or

"Already in Present-day English we seem to be reaching a stage where some modals (shall, ought to, need) are reaching the end of their useful life" (Leech 2003: 236).

Here are two illustrative tables from Leech 2003:

Written English

Leech2003 ought written

Spoken English

enter image description here

There is nothing surprising in these tables (i.e. that "ought" has been on the decline). Linguists have known this for at least fifty years. The general consensus among linguists is that "ought" is falling out of use (Cappelle and Desutter 2010, Collins 2009, Myhill 1997, among many, many others). In fact, I don't know of any linguist who would argue the opposite.

Martin Harris (in Harris 1986) shares a funny story about how his two teenage sons, "speakers of educated standard British English", "informed" him that ought is "an old word", used by people like him, meaning should (p. 347). That was in England in the 1980s.

In any natural language, there is a lot of variation. Some native speakers use "should" instead of "ought" in questions and negative sentences, some say things like "did we ought to leave so soon". Some native speakers say "oughtn't to open"; some, esp. in the US, say "oughtn't open", and some prefer "didn't ought to open". Some people think that "ought" should be used in cases when your judgment is based on external rules, like social conventions or institutions, as opposed to "should" used for the moral judgment stemming from the speaker's/writer's own personal criteria (Bouscaren et al. 1992). Some don't.

DeCapua 2008 argues that "use and choice of modals also vary somewhat regionally across the United States. In some areas, for instance, ought to occurs more frequently than in others [emphasis mine - Alex B.]" (p. 233).

However, we can observe general, supra-dialectal trends:

  • ought is more common in speech than in writing - 56% (spoken), 44% (written) in Cappelle and Desutter 2010. Collins 2009 reports the speech-writing ratios 3:1 for BrE and 4:1 for AmE;
  • should is much more common that ought, the ratio is 9:1;
  • deontic ought is much more common that epistemic ought;
  • ought is more common in declarative sentences (in spoken English) etc.

The authors of the MW Dictionary of English Usage, "the finest work of scholarship on English grammar and usage I have ever seen" (Geoffrey Pullum), mention that oughtn't is regionally limited in the US, "being found most commonly in Midland and Southern areas of the Atlantic Seaboard and in parts of the Northern Midland area." They also argue, based on thorough research, that oughtn't has "somewhat limited use in writing, mostly in reported speech or light prose."

Incidentally, Pam Peter's Guide is well-written and based on current linguistic research. David Crystal calls it "a reliable style guide."

Now, this is what Pam Peters actually wrote in the Cambridge Guide:

So while ought still works affirmatively as a marginal modal expressing obligation [emphasis mine - Alex B.], it’s otherwise replaced by modals such as should and must in nonfiction writing of all kinds, everywhere in the world.

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What about 'oughta'? That's very common, maybe more than 'may'. –  Mitch Jul 25 '12 at 22:55
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@Mitch, Yes, my intuition tells me that "oughtta" is rather common but I don't see how we could check this. COCA has 34 occurrences of "oughtta" and 1 of "ougtha", nothing for "otta". BASE doesn't help us much, either. –  Alex B. Jul 26 '12 at 1:32
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The difficulty with these corpuses is that they record -written- usually standard speech very well, but not spoken/informal/common but non-standard speech. –  Mitch Jul 26 '12 at 1:51
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Despite your scholarship, Alex, the problem remains that your ultimate paragraph is stating an untruth: there is no shortage of examples of ought being used in nonfiction everywhere, exactly the contrary of what is stated. I cannot approve of misleading people this way. –  tchrist Jul 29 '12 at 18:48
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The longer this debate continues, the more puzzled I become. Three things seem evident: (1) in general, should is more common than ought; (2) the usage of ought has been in a slow but steady decline; (3) neither of the first two points mean that ought is "rare," "odd," "improper," "extinct," "obsolete," or "abnormal" – it's still a word one will read or hear on occasion. There are now over five dozen comments here, and most all of them seem to support those three non-contradictory statements in one way or another. Just my opinion, but perhaps the debate ought to come to a close. –  J.R. Jul 30 '12 at 3:43

Other answers have mostly finished off your questions about contexts where ought to is used, and whether it's used more in formal or informal cases. Peter Shor, Alex B, and tchrist mention the regional form didn't ought to. Tchrist also mentions hadn't ought and might ought to, and notes that the OED says did ought is dialectic, colloquial, and vulgar.

Should ought to is another form sometimes seen (ref. ngrams). In transcriptions it's often rendered as should oughta or more tersely. Here's a should ought to of example, ca. 1914-1919, from You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner. It represents colloquial or untutored midwestern US letter-writing of the time, perhaps exaggerated:

I shut them out to-day and they should ought not to of had four hits but should ought to of had only 2 but Bodie don't cover no ground and 2 fly balls that he should ought to of eat up fell safe.

On page 354 of Modality in Contemporary English, S. J. Nagle comments on linguistics issues raised by should ought to, might should ought to, might should better, etc., apparently discussing whether these fall within some double- or multiple-modals system or instead are anarchic.

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I get get 'colloquial'. But 'dialectic'? And 'vulgar'? Really? –  Mitch Jul 30 '12 at 18:28
    
@Mitch, Near the middle of his answer, tchrist shows a cite the OED terms vulgar, and suggests it's meant in the classical sense, ie, "Having to do with ordinary, common people". Also, dialectal, "Of or relating to a dialect" or "Not linguistically standard" undoubtedly would be a better word choice than dialectic with its "Any formal system of reasoning..." and "A contradiction of ideas..." senses. –  jwpat7 Jul 30 '12 at 18:40

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