As I travel around England, Southern Wales, and Southern Scotland, I hear the rural and working-class people in some areas use "should" (and never "ought"), in other areas "ought" alone (without "to") and in others again "ought to".

In modern use, both are modal (except that "ought to" is semi-modal - we don't say "can to", "would to", etc.).

  • Both derive from proto-Germanic words signifying "debt" (both moral and financial), from Old English past tenses (should from sceold, past of sceall, which went on to become "shall"; ought from ahte, past of agan, which went on to become 'owe');
  • all the usages of "ought" are shared by "should"...
  • ...but should has additional usages (e.g. in a clause after "that", indicating purpose - "in order that ... should be helpful..."; e.g. in first person enhancing politeness - "I should like another sandwich, if you would be so kind").

(The Germanic origins indicate that these words aren't Viking, but are Anglo-Saxon - not merely blandly "Old English".)

In literary works and legal situations, "ought" seems to be preferred - a matter of tradition, rather than meaning: perhaps originally because (for some reason) it was considered more prestigious.

The many dictionaries, "English as a second language guides", websites etc. that consider "should versus ought" decree "same meaning but..." for diverse "but"s - most commonly "ought is stronger", and "ought is more formal". That's not what I hear in the streets and villages of England.

So finally, the question, in two forms:

  1. has anyone done a systematic study of where in England and the parts of Wales and Scotland that have spoken English from pre-1066 times which of SHOULD, OUGHT and OUGHT TO is preferred in common (not over-educated) speech?
  2. has anyone done a corresponding systematic study in Old English documents? (or perhaps in Middle English documents).

That might enable us to determine groups of Anglo/Saxon/Jute/other settlers who brought which word, before Nobles, Lawyers, Scholars and others who travelled around perhaps confused the issue?

  • You can visit the southern US, where "should oughta" is how you say any of those. (-: For reference: researchgate.net/publication/…
    – Jim Mack
    Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 20:10
  • 2
    Unfortunately, you don't say in what capacity you "travel around", but as a visitor you can be expected to be treated linguistically differently from a local. If you travel by way of your profession, that too will have an effect on how you are addressed. The other thing is that you do not give any contextual examples. "You should not drive so fast"/"You ought not to drive so fast", are clearly different. "I should say that she is about 30" differs hugely from "I ought to say that she is about 30." Can you help us?
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 20:25
  • Greybeard - I said I heard, not that I spoke!
    – Kestrel
    Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 23:03
  • Capacities = work, sports (sea to mountain), friends, assistance, shopping, pub, burger van etc: lived in widespread places. When I speak, I instinctively switch to the tongue of which of my stays is closest. But always I listen: most productive when in jeans, but tidy. I avoid contextual examples: they bias answers, everywhere from street to conference hall. Your "should say" is an idiom for "I estimate": your "ought" is also a usage, hinting at "because she looks 40'ish, but I'm trying to be nice." (-: PS - I'm a whitebeard... :-)
    – Kestrel
    Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 23:44
  • Jim Mack - Sadly, Europe summoned me more often than N America. But Europe was enlightening for many, many shrewd questions about my Mother tongue! - most of my issues with English and it's orthography were triggered by those interrogations... especially questions that started with "why"; much tougher than simple "what" and "how".
    – Kestrel
    Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 23:56


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.