Difference between "Should" vs "ought to"



It's essential that the documents (should)/(ought to) be destroyed immediately.

Which one is more suitable one as I know "ought to" and "should" are synonyms.

Sanjar Igamov

Posted 2015-07-24T16:28:24.417

Reputation: 429

"Ought to" is old-fashioned imo. – user124384 – 2015-07-25T17:24:46.403



Well, if it's essential, use neither:

It's essential that the documents be destroyed immediately.

Otherwise, the difference is in the connotation. Should has a slightly weaker sound to it, as if the documents should be destroyed, but other concerns could be more pressing. Ought to sounds more like a directive, as in "We ought to destroy these documents (and who's going to do it?)"

EDIT: As @ErikE points out, these is another use of "should" related to this. If these documents were so dangerous you couldn't risk anyone being near them, you could say:

Burn the building down, that all documents therein should be destroyed.

In this case, should is used to mean will be, while lending more poetry to the language. This is a somewhat archaic usage, though still understandable and definitely a unique, attention-grabbing way of saying the same thing.

The gravity of this phrasing could even be used humorously:

Please pour me a beer, that I should slake my thirst

Puts far more importance on beer and thirst than is normal. As Erik alluded, connotations of kings and epic battles can be expected, as this syntax sounds vaguely Shakespearean.


Posted 2015-07-24T16:28:24.417

Reputation: 673

2You've hit on the problem in the original sentence but I think your answer could be more well-rounded. Perhaps you'd care to comment on the difference between "be destroyed" and "are destroyed". Also, you might want to elaborate on how the construction "It's essential that the documents should be destroyed immediately" could be seen as using different meaning of should closer to would. Example, in the poetic language "And the king ordered his men to fire the dragon laser, that the enemy ships should be destroyed before reaching land." – ErikE – 2015-07-24T19:49:47.023

1There is another common form (in American English, at least) that might also be worth mentioning: "it is essential for the documents to be destroyed." I like your way better, but I hear it this way at least as often. – DoctorDestructo – 2015-07-24T23:29:29.203

instead of 'it's essential' I would just say they must be destroyed. Means the same thing, more or less, but matches the usage of shoud/ought to better. – Dan – 2015-07-25T00:11:51.647


In constructions like this, where should is replacing the subjunctive, you can only use should and not ought to. Google says it finds over a million results for "necessary that they should be" (and is willing to show me 500, if you don't trust their counts—as you shouldn't). It finds two hits for "necessary that they ought to be".

If you're writing for an American audience, you should probably just use the subjunctive: "essential that the documents be". But "essential that the documents should be" may be preferred for a British audience.

Peter Shor

Posted 2015-07-24T16:28:24.417

Reputation: 2 449

3"It is necessary that they should be destroyed" sounds redundant to me. If the documents should be destroyed, than it is necessary that they be destroyed, and vice versa. No? I'd say "It is necessary that they be destroyed" or "they should be destroyed", not both. – Jay – 2015-07-24T18:32:36.947

@Jay, as mentioned in this answer, that's indeed the case for an American audience (which is probably your case). "They should be destroyed" (without "essential" or "necessary") doesn't have the same strength. – Bruno – 2015-07-24T18:53:47.400

I think using the word "should" in this way is worse than redundant, unless your goal is to avoid the absoluteness of the word "essential" by adding a hint of ambiguity to the sentence. Mere redundancy can be achieved by replacing "should" with "must". – DoctorDestructo – 2015-07-24T23:13:12.850


Until relatively recently, essential that it was usually followed by should in the UK. It wasn't any kind of weakening of the phrase; it was just how the grammar worked. See Ngram. It was common in the US in the 19th century as well, although it sounds weird to a lot of Americans now.

– Peter Shor – 2015-07-25T03:17:14.320

Well, I still can't help wondering if the "should" was shoehorned in to take a bit of the edge off; the Brits do consider it unseemly to overstate things, after all. When I hear "should" used in this manner, I get the impression that the speaker is attempting to make a correction mid-sentence (grammar be damned) after realizing that the word "essential" may not leave enough wiggle room. – DoctorDestructo – 2015-07-27T15:36:10.710

1@DoctorDestructo: I suspect that this should started out as the subjunctive of shall, and indicated the future. But when the subjunctive started dying a slow death in English, it became in England a piece of zombie grammar which didn't really have any purpose. – Peter Shor – 2015-07-27T15:59:43.963

... And as a small bit of evidence in favor of this hypothesis, Google Ngrams shows that back when the subjunctive was still alive, people never said ordered that he be but only ordered that he should be, while they used both forms with necessary. This is because orders are always for the future. I wonder if anybody still perceives this "futureness" of that he should be. – Peter Shor – 2015-07-27T16:24:54.097

... And here's the Ngram, which doesn't fit in the previous comment.

– Peter Shor – 2015-07-27T16:25:16.267


"ought to" and "should" can be synonyms, but aren't necessarily. Aside from what's already pointed out in the other answers:

By themselves:

"ought to" makes it clear that it is a decision made by the speaker. "should" can be used in that sense as well, but can also be used in other senses.

The documents ought to be destroyed immediately.

This is clear and means I see a problem with not destroying the documents.

The documents should be destroyed immediately.

This could mean that I see a problem with not destroying the documents. It could also mean that even though I do not agree, I acknowledge the decision made by someone else to immediately destroy the documents. "Ought to" isn't (generally?) used like that.

But if it's essential, then don't use either, use "must".

The documents must be destroyed immediately.

Combined with "essential":

As already answered, "it's essential that [x] should [y]" and "it's essential that [x] [y]" have become somewhat fixed expressions. We do not choose based on the correctness, as they are both correct. We choose based on how common they are. If we choose a highly uncommon version, people may focus on our odd English, instead of focusing on the message we're trying to get across.

As for "it's essential that [x] ought to [y]", do not use it. It does not make sense: "it's essential" attempts to make the claim objective. "Ought to" attempts to make it subjective. It cannot very well be both.


Posted 2015-07-24T16:28:24.417

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