Should, ought to, and had better

The Uses of should, ought to, and had better

When indicating a probable event, should and ought to have similar meanings. However, we can make use of the modal verb, should, or the semi-modal, ought to to express certain meanings in the following ways.

1.  To express obligation or recommendation, as:

  • You should (ought to) finish your homework before dinner is ready.
  • You should (ought to) be more careful.

2.  To express probability, as:

  • It should (ought to) be ready by now.
  • I enjoyed his first drawing. So the new one should (ought to) be interesting.

Although, in general aspects, should is used more frequently. Ought to is used particularly in speech and most often to express obligation rather than probability.

When we conclude, on the basis of some evidence we have, that something is certain or very likely we can use must but not should / ought to. Survey the following expression.

  • It’s the third time she’s been skating this week. She must really enjoy it.

3.   We prefer should when we say what an outside authority recommends:

  • The manual says that the computer should be disconnected from the power supply before the cover is removed. (rather than … ought to be disconnected …)

4.   We use should (or would), not ought to, when we give advice with I:

  • I should leave early tomorrow, if I were you.
    →(or I would leave … ; or I’d leave … )

5.   We prefer should in questions, particularly in wh-questions Opens in new window:

  • What should I do if I have any issues?
  • Should I ring you at home?

6.   We use should / ought to + have + past participle to express activities that didn’t happen in the past and we are sorry that it didn’t:

  • We should / ought to have waited for the rain to stop. (I’m sorry we didn’t)

We often use this pattern to indicate some regret or criticism and the negative forms shouldn’t / oughtn’t to have are often used in this way.

7.   We also use the construction should / ought to + have + past participle to express an expectation that something happened, has happened, or will happen:

  • If the flight was on time, he should / ought to have arrived in Memphis early this morning.

8.   We can use should in questions that are offers or that request confirmation or advice:

  • Should I call for an ambulance for you?
  • Who should I pass the message to?

Note that in sentences like these we can also use shall with a very similar meaning.

Compare the use of shall and should in sentences such as the following, where ‘I shall” means ‘I intend to’ and ‘I should’ means ‘I ought to’:

  • I shall read the script on the train tomorrow. (or I’ll read … ) and
  • I should read the script on the train tomorrow but I know that I’ll be too tired.

9.   We can use had better instead of should / ought to, especially in spoken English, to say that we think it is a good idea to do something:

  • If you’re not well, you’d better ask Clara to go instead.
    → (or … you should / ought to …)

Although we don’t use it to talk about the past or to make general comments:

  • You should / ought to have caught a later train.
    → (not You had better have caught …)
  • I don’t think parents should / ought to have caught a later train.
    → (not … parents had better give …)

10.   We prefer had better if we want to express particular urgency or in demands and threats:

  • There’s someone moving about downstairs. We’d better call the police, quickly.
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Important Hint!  

Note that the negative form is had better not, and in questions the subject comes after had:

  • He’d better not be late again or he’ll be in trouble.
  • Had we better get a taxi? (or Should we get …?)