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Should vs. Ought To: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on December 25, 2023
"Should" suggests a recommendation or expectation, while "ought to" emphasizes a moral or ethical duty, both expressing advisability or desirability.

Key Differences

"Should" is commonly used to express advisability or a suggestion. For example, "You should drink more water." Conversely, "ought to" carries a slightly stronger connotation of duty or correctness, often linked to a moral or ethical dimension, as in, "You ought to apologize."
In terms of formality, "should" is more frequently used in everyday, casual conversations. It is versatile, fitting into diverse contexts easily. "Ought to," however, sounds more formal and is less common in casual speech, often appearing in written or formal spoken English.
When expressing expectations, "should" is often the go-to choice. For instance, "The train should arrive by 5 PM." On the other hand, "ought to" is used to emphasize an expectation based on norms or morals, such as, "You ought to respect your elders."
Regarding negative forms, "should not" implies a recommendation against something, while "ought not to" or "oughtn't to" conveys a stronger sense of impropriety or incorrectness. The latter is less commonly used in modern English.
In questions, "should" is more prevalent. Asking, "Should I call them?" is more common than using "ought to," which would sound overly formal. "Ought to" in questions often suggests a seeking of confirmation about a duty or correctness.

Comparison Chart


Suggestive, advisory
Moral, ethical duty


Casual, everyday use
More formal, less common in speech

Negative Form

"Should not" for advice against
"Ought not to" for strong impropriety

Usage in Questions

Common for seeking advice
Formal, seeking confirmation of duty

Expectation Level

General expectations
Moral or normative expectations

Should and Ought To Definitions


To indicate likelihood.
It should rain tomorrow.

Ought To

For expected outcomes.
He ought to win the race.


Used to give advice.
You should see a doctor.

Ought To

Indicates moral duty.
You ought to tell the truth.


In conditional sentences.
If you study, you should pass.

Ought To

Stronger than a suggestion.
You ought to see that movie.


To express expectation.
She should be here soon.

Ought To

Formal way of giving advice.
You ought to consult a lawyer.


Mild form of obligation.
You should complete your work.

Ought To

Indicating a likely event.
It ought to be sunny tomorrow.


(auxiliary) Ought to; indicating opinion, advice, or instruction, about what is required or desirable.


Used to issue an instruction (traditionally seen as carrying less force of authority than alternatives such as 'shall' or 'must').
You should never drink and drive.
The law is clear that you should always wear a seat belt.
The manual says that this switch should be in the 'off' position.


Can "ought to" be used for strong advice?

Yes, it implies a stronger sense of duty than "should."

Does "ought to" imply moral obligation?

Yes, it often conveys a moral or ethical duty.

Can "should" express probability?

Yes, it can indicate likelihood, e.g., "It should rain."

Can "should" be used in questions?

Yes, often to seek advice or suggestions.

Is "should" formal?

"Should" is less formal and widely used in everyday language.

How do you form a negative with "should"?

By adding "not," as in "should not."

Can "ought to" be omitted in casual speech?

Yes, especially since "should" is more common in casual contexts.

Do "should" and "ought to" have the same meaning?

They are similar but differ in strength and formality.

Is "ought to" stronger than "should"?

Yes, it generally has a stronger implication of duty.

Is "should" mandatory?

No, "should" is advisory, not mandatory.

Is "ought to" common in spoken English?

It's less common and more formal than "should."

Are there contexts where "ought to" is preferred over "should"?

Yes, especially in formal or ethical contexts.

How is "should" used in advice-giving?

It's used to suggest or recommend actions.

Is "ought to" used in conditional sentences?

Rarely, "should" is more common in conditionals.

Is "ought to" dated or old-fashioned?

It can sound slightly old-fashioned in casual contexts.

Can "should" be used interchangeably with "must"?

No, "must" is stronger, indicating necessity or obligation.

Can "ought to" imply expectations based on norms?

Yes, it often reflects societal or moral norms.

Can "should" express a mild obligation?

Yes, it's used for softer obligations.

Does "should" imply a recommendation?

Yes, it's often used for making suggestions.

Is "should" appropriate for formal writing?

Yes, though "ought to" can add formality.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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