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Ought is originally the past tense of owe (v.). It appears that this usage is retained in Scottish and in some dialects of English. The current use of ought in standard English is a modal auxiliary (as present or future tense, mainly with to and infinitive).

Etymonline says ought has been detached from owe since 17c. and provides the etymology of ought as below:

Old English ahte "owned, possessed," past tense of agan "to own, possess; owe" (see owe). As a past tense of owe, it shared in that word's evolution and meant at times in Middle English "possessed" and "under obligation to pay." It has been detached from owe since 17c., though he aught me ten pounds is recorded as active in East Anglian dialect c. 1825. As an auxiliary verb expressing duty or moral obligation (the main modern use, attested from late 12c.), it represents the past subjunctive.

Ought, Should. Ought is the stronger, expressing especially obligations of duty, with some weaker use in expressing interest or necessity: as, you ought to know, if any one does. Should sometimes expresses duty: as, we should be careful of others' feelings; but generally expresses propriety, expediency, etc.: as, we should dot our i's and cross our t's. [Century Dictionary, 1895]

How did "ought" "lose its original usage as the past tense of "owe"? What happened in the history of its evolution?

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  • The full OED has a fairy long "Etymology" section under ought, which starts with Originally the past tense of owe v. (see also discussion at that entry) - with a hotlink to an even longer Etymology section under owe. I don't know if it's relevant to the current question, but the discussion under ought has this as the final point: The stem vowel development in the γ. forms is unexplained. I can't copy/paste the "popup" text for y- forms, but it's all about Middle English variants of eght -> hihte, ight, iht, ihte, yight and regional dialectal eught, hewt. Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 14:27
  • The GH in the spelling foretells a missing velar, with the usual stochastic results in the vowels. Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 16:40
  • Also compare to mought, which survived in some parts of rural Appalachia as a repurposed modal until a few years ago, but I haven't heard it in about 20 years. wordnik.com/words/mought
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 22:03

3 Answers 3

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There are attestions of the meaning "to owe someone money" as early as the first quarter of the 13th century. See ouen (verb) in the MED, which comes from Old English āgan whose past is āhte.

Here's the earliest attestation around 1230 (possibly earlier), with variant spellings found in other manuscripts in brackets:

Ich wulle neomen onward þe deatte þe þu ahest [Nero: owest; Cleo: aȝest] me.

I'll take on the debt that you owe.

In modern English we sometimes say that we "own" something when we mean that a misdeed, or a foible, is our own. That notion of "own" is where possession shades into acknowledgement, "owning up".

And that sense of acknowledgement can shade into the sense of acknowledging a debt to be our own, and further into the sense of acknowledging what is appropriate.

Those shades of meaning are already established by the early 13th century.

There are a number of attestations of the senses of obligation, necessity, propriety, duty, etc from the earliest years of the 13th century. For example, here's one around the year 1200:

Ech sunedai..in chirche..al chirche folc ohg to ben gadered.

In that sense the past form is used as a modal verb complemented by an infinitive. So it isn't that the verb ouen has lost its meanings (to owe money, and the others) as much as that the past tense form has become a special kind of verb in its own right.

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If we ignore the Scottish and dialect use, then “ought” as the past of to owe lasted from Old English until late Middle English.

(Quotes from OED)

OE Leof landfruma lange ahte. Beowulf 31 -> c1450 (a1400)

However, in Old English–1175 the verb also had the meaning of

transitive. ought (something) to yield: had (something) to pay. Obsolete.

(And here and throughout we can see a comparison with owe v.)

And later changed slightly to being in debt – i.e. endebted:

?† intransitive. Was in debt to. Obsolete.

a1464 Þis kyng of Aragon..deneyed it [sc. service], and saide he aute non but to þe kyng of Spayn. J. Capgrave, Abbreuiacion of Cronicles (Cambridge MS. Gg.4.12) (1983) 130

This seems to be the first signs of the endebtedness hinting at a developing sense of moral endebtedness.

This sense was continued in financial language until

1610 That the first man shee mette..should pay her for the sport that Hercules ought her for. J. Healey, translation of St. Augustine, Citie of God vi. vii. 246

At more or less the same time, we have:

transitive. Owed; had to repay (esp. an ill turn, shame, etc.). Obsolete.

1694 The Devil ought him a shame, and paid him both interest and principal. R. L'Estrange, Fables (1714) cclxxviii. 294

But by 1700, this sense of “ought” had died out.

In the sense of a moral obligation, ought was always used in the sense of something being “owed it to duty”; it was right or proper for me (you, him, them, etc.).

OE Iosep hæfde micle gyfe æt his hlaforde & þenode him; & betæhte him eal þæt he ahte to bewitenne. Old English Hexateuch: Genesis (Claudius MS.) xxxix. 4

1692 Till you..did kindly teach Apollo, what he out to preach. E. Walker, translation of Epictetus, Enchiridion (1737) To Mr. Walker 61

As a present/future/past tense, it might have appeared in OE but certainly did in ME and was always the most common form (I suppose, chiefly because this was a verb used in the context of right and wrong: a common subject):

a1225 (?OE) Þes we ahte to beon þe edmoddre. MS Lambeth in R. Morris, Old English Homilies (1868) 1st Series 5

?c1225 (?a1200) Ich wes of swich elde þet ich achte wel to habben wisluker iwite me. Ancrene Riwle (Cleopatra MS. C.vi) (1972) 236

a1522 I aucht and worthy was to haue bene slane. G. Douglas, translation of Virgil, Æneid (1959) x. xiv. 58

1658 Therefore I aught to begg your pardon.

and this continues into the present.

Since the 17th century "ought" has been in epistemic use.

Perhaps arising from instances of the deontic use in which the grammatical subject is non-personal and there is no unexpressed agent on whom the moral obligation might be imagined to fall.

Expressing expectation of an occurrence or belief in its likelihood: am (is, are) likely (to); may be expected (to).

In the present or future:

1656 The Apogæum of the Sunne, or the Aphelium of the Earth ought to be about the 28th degree of Cancer. translation of T. Hobbes, Elements of Philosophy iv. xxvi. 329

2001 Betting is getting cheaper. You can still lose your shirt, but with luck you ought to hold on to your suit, shoes and socks.

As far as to owe (in the Modern sense) is concerned,

The Old English past tense āhte, Middle English ahte, ohte, survives as ought v. which before 1200 began to be used (in the subjunctive) with an indefinite, and hence present, signification, in a special sense, and thus gradually came to be in use as a distinct verb; its function as past tense of owe is supplied from the late 14th cent. by owed

Thus between the late 14th century and the late 17th century, there was an overlap of owed and ought. Probably due to increasing wealth of the population and release from serfdom, the distinction between a financial and a moral debt was necessary, and thus ought went one way, and to owe/owed went another.

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OED mentions that the emergence of owed, the current past tense of owe, in late 14th. century (late Middle English) is the reason why ought lost its original usage as the past tense of owe. OED explains how different senses of ought has developed in its etymology as below:

In Middle English, in main verb senses (see branch I.), a past participle use develops, which after the 17th cent. is restricted to Scots. Additionally in these senses in Scots, the word shows a tendency to develop present tense and present participle inflections, reflecting the newer present tense uses, while retaining the uninflected past tense form for past tense uses.

In modal verb use (see branch II.), following the development of present senses, inflected present tense forms are attested from the 16th cent. onwards; the evidence is sparse, suggesting that this is a sporadic independent development in dialects of different regions and periods. On the other hand the development of a past participle and infinitive use in conjunction with other auxiliaries in branch II. occurs late, but establishes itself strongly in British and U.S. dialects from the 19th cent. onwards.

Ought remains the ordinary past tense of owe throughout Middle English. Its development of present and future reference in modal use can be compared with must v.1 3. This probably accounts for the emergence of the new regular past tense of owe in late Middle English.

OED provides the relevant information below in the etymology of owe also:

The Old English past tense āhte , Middle English ahte , ohte , survives as ought v. (compare forms at that entry), which before 1200 began to be used (in the subjunctive) with an indefinite and hence present signification, in a special sense, and thus gradually came to be in use as a distinct verb; its function as past tense of owe is supplied from the late 14th cent. by owed (compare Forms 3).

In Forms 3 of owe in OED, which is the past indicative as owed (originally ought), the earliest citation is from a1400. Here are the three earliest citations of this form from OED:

a1400 (▸a1325)    Cursor Mundi (Trin. Cambr.) 14045    Wheþer owed to loue him bettur þo.
1572    R. Harrison tr. L. Lavater Of Ghostes ii. x. 147    This man yt owed ye apparel.
a1616    W. Shakespeare Othello (1622) iii. iii. 337    That sweete sleepe, Which thou owedst yesterday.

In Forms 4(ii) of owe in OED, which is the new formation of the past participle as owed, the earliest citation is from a1382 from Wycliffe's Bible. Here are the two earliest citations of this form from OED:

▸ a1382    Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Bodl. 959) Num. vi. 17    He shal offre apesyble hoost to þe lord, offrynge..sacrefysys of lycours þat of manere been owed [L. debentur].
?a1425 (▸c1380)    G. Chaucer tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. iv. pr. v. 102    Tormentz of laweful peynes ben rather owed to felonus citezeins.

I believe the emergence and usage of owed in influential works like Cursor Mundi and Wycliffe's Bible, and the usage of owed by influential writers like Chaucer and Shakespeare have significance in the sense development of ought and owe and the detachment of ought from owe.

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  • There's generally been quite a bit of historical variation in the past tense and past participles, with a tendency towards more regular forms. This explains the rise of "owed" as well as anything can.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 14:56

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