What’s the difference between ‘Should’ and ‘Ought to’?

For many students who are learning English, the differences between the modals ‘should’ and ‘ought to’ are difficult to understand.

Firstly, let’s look at the differences in form between these two modal verbs. In this case ‘should’ operates as a typical modal and is followed by a bare infinitive, or an infinitive without to.

  • Ex: I should go home because it’s late

‘Ought to’ is different than most other modal verbs however as it uses the infinitive with to.

  • Ex: I ought to go to bed earlier

Both of these modal verbs are used to talk about obligation and duty but is there a difference in meaning between the two?

Let’s take a look at two examples:

  1. I should stop smoking
  2. I ought to eat less red meat

The meaning here is basically the same. In both sentences these are things that would be good for you and can help you to live a healthier lifestyle. The only slight difference is that ‘ought to’ usually has a slightly stronger or more forceful meaning.

Let’s look at the sentences again.

1. I should stop smoking

In this sentence the implication is that you think that smoking is bad for you and are considering stopping.

2. I ought to eat less red meat

In this sentence you are saying that this is something that is a good idea and something that is desirable for you to do soon.

We also use both of these modal verbs to give advice or suggestions, and again the meaning is very similar with only a small difference.
For example:

You should try and do more exercise
You ought to report the crime to the police immediately

In both of these sentences the speaker is giving advice to someone else, but there is a subtle difference in the implied meaning.

1. You should try and do more exercise

This is a suggestion and means that it would be a good thing for you to do.

2. You ought to report the crime to the police immediately

We could use ‘should’ here, but ‘ought to’ has a stronger and more forceful meaning. It implies that this is the morally correct thing to do, or that this is something that needs to be done because it is your duty to report a crime.

Conclusion:

We can use ‘should’ and ‘ought to’ in the same way, but ‘ought to’ is just slightly stronger in meaning. ‘Ought to’ implies a moral obligation or a duty rather than just something that would be good to do. In this way ‘should’ is used to talk about something more subjective (based on our opinion) and ‘ought to’ is more objective (based on fact). ‘Ought to’ is also considered to be more formal than ‘should’, and so we use it less in spoken English and more in written form.