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Ought to and should

Modal auxiliaries are helping verbs that connect with normal/ordinary verbs to express a meaning, ask a question or negate. Modal auxiliaries are never used with the main auxiliaries; be, have and do, and do not make sense on their own, therefore, they must be connected with a normal verb in order to make sense. Modal verbs also never change form (they cannot be conjugated). Dictionary definition according to Merriam Webster: ”an auxiliary verb (such as can, must, might, may) that is characteristically used with a verb of predication and expresses a modal modification and that in English differs formally from other verbs in lacking -s and -ing forms”. 

Here, we are going to elaborate on two very similar modal auxiliaries. ought to and should. (Note that modal auxiliaries are never followed by ‘to’ before the infinitive, except with, need to, ought to and dare to.

Ought to

(1) Used in the present, future and past. (past-only when preceded by a verb in the past or when followed by a perfect infinitive). We use ‘ought to’ to express or ascertain what is correct, either being advice or factual;
  • You ought not to speak so loudly young lad.
  • I ought to make a trip to the United States one day.
  • I really ought to have seen him yesterday. (past = ‘ought to’ + present perfect).
(2) Used for advice or recommendations; 
  • You ought to learn how to play the violin, you’d be good at it.
  • She oughtn’t to have left her books on the desk.
  • You ought to try some of the fresh apple pie I just made.
(3) Used to express what we like or would like to see happen;
  • Lawyers ought to earn more money for all the hours that they put in.
  • I ought to see my father at some point.
  • Older people oughtn’t to be sent to a retirement home.


(1) Is used to express obligation (obligation of a lesser degree than ‘must’ or ‘need to’); 
  • You shouldn’t go to town dressed like that Jimmy.
  • I should really do my taxes at some point.
  • They should always wait and look both ways before crossing the road.
(2) We use should to express duty;
  • People should always be careful with their belongings.
  • You should get up early every morning if you want to live a healthy lifestyle.
  • You should be the commander in chief.
(3) We use should to deduct (when something is probable); 
  • If we’re lucky we should win the race in no time.
  • I should be able to come to the party tomorrow around 18h if that’s okay?
  • Our colleague isn’t here yet, but he should be arriving shortly.

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