The modal verbs “should” and “ought to” are used to express “advice, obligation, or probability . ” These are auxiliary verbs, which is why they are always in the sentence accompanying a main verb. The objective of these types of words is to give a different nuance to the action.
Both “should” and “ought to”, in many cases, can be interchanged. The meaning is the same for both and using one or the other does not alter the phrase. However, there are differences related to the context in which they are used. In this lesson we show you what the modal verbs “should” and “ought to” mean and how to use them .
General translation of the modal verbs “should” and “ought to”
These verbs can be translated in Spanish as “should” or “would have to . ” As we already mentioned, there are cases where they can be interchanged with each other and their meaning is practically the same.
In the sentence “You must call Tony and Mary”, you can use either of the two verbs (should, ought to)
- You should call Tony and Mary.
- You ought to call Tony and Mary
Although the translation is the same, the context is not. Therefore, what we are trying to express with one or the other is different.
It is used to express a subjective or personal opinion . It is very similar to giving advice, because we express our opinion to the person with whom we speak. In other words, it can be used after the phrase “What I think is…”
It is also used to express an obligation, although to a lesser degree than “must” or “need to” . The negative form is “shouldn’t.”
The general structure for sentences with “should” is:
Subject + should / shouldn’t + verb in infinitive.
Continuing with the previous example, if we want to suggest “You should call Tony and Mary” because it seems prudent, then we use “should”.
- It’s Tony and Mary’s anniversary, you should call them.
It is as if we said:
- It’s Tony and Mary’s anniversary. What I think is you should call them.
- She said that I should see a doctor.
- We should find this workbook helpful.
- Richard took his umbrella so that he shouldn’t get wet.
- Why should n’t he buy it if he can afford it?
“Should” in the past tense
The modal verb “should” can also be used in the past tense. It serves to speak of an obligation in the past that we believe should have been carried out but it was not . For this, the auxiliary verb “have” and the main verb in the past participle are used.
Subject + should / shouldn’t + have + past participle verb.
- They should have studied atomic.
- You shouldn’t have prepared that pork because she is vegetarian.
- You should have seen her, she was very angry.
The difference with the modal verb “ought to” is that it is usually used to express moral obligation or responsibility , also when we speak of an objective truth . In this case the phrase does not refer to what we personally think about a matter but to a reality in itself.
While “should” talks about our opinion in relation to obligation or advice, “ought to” talks about duty, rules or moral obligation . The most common example of its use is when we refer to laws and regulated obligations.
The structure of the sentences with “ought to” is:
Subject + ought to + verb in the infinitive.
- Fauci the doctor needs to talk to you about your symptoms. You ought to call Fauci.
As you can see, this verb is always accompanied by the particle “to” . Also, its negative form is “oughtn’t” and it is not often used to ask questions.
- Ask him, he ought to have your phone – Ask him, he should have your phone.
- It oughtn’t to be difficult to find a good plastic surgeon – It shouldn’t be difficult to find a good plastic surgeon.
- He oughtn’t to do that. (He shouldn’t do that.)
- My sister ought to be home by nine o’clock. (My sister should be home around nine o’clock.)
“Ought to” in the past tense
The modal verb “ought to”, like “should”, can also be used in the past tense with the auxiliary “have” and the main verb in the past participle . The structure of the sentence would be the following:
Structure: Subject + ought / oughtn’t + to + have + verb in past participle.
- I ought to have bought the medicines in other pharmacy.
- Mary ought to have arrived at midday but the flight was delayed. (Mary should have arrived at noon but the flight was delayed.)
Final thoughts on the modal verbs “should” and “ought to”
- You should keep in mind that these verbs can be interchangeable on some occasions. However, ” ought to” is more formal and rarely used in everyday speech.
- To know which of the two to use in certain circumstances, you must think about the kind of obligation you want to express .
- If it is a higher moral obligation , which has legal consequences or is more rigid; then the correct modal verb is “ought to” .
- When you speak of a minor obligation or a subjective opinion , you must resort to the modal verb “should” which, in fact, is the most used.