Ought to – When and How to Use

Subject on request!

By Jacqueline Schaalje


Some readers have asked me what ought to actually is. I can understand that you don’t know what ought to means. It’s not used that much. In fact, you can speak perfect English without using ought to even once in your life. What’s more, many people say that Americans will never say ought to. That’s not quite true, though, because I’ve heard Americans say ought to. And if you read the quotations by famous people in this article, you’ll see that some are by Americans.

Anyway, here at English with a Smile we want to give you perfect perfect English (while you keep smiling), and we don’t care if some people in Australia say this more and others in America say that less. Ought to is common enough, so let’s first give you some examples. And then I’ll tell you everything you ought to know about ought to.


I ought to be home by 6 o’clock as my parents are coming to dinner.

There ought to be more signs on this road. I’m always taking a wrong turn.

You ought to practise more if you want to be a professional flutist.

The flowers ought to be watered right now. They are completely dry.

Now are you able to guess what ought to means?

Ought to is very much like should.

So you can use it in much the same way as should.

  1. For Advice

You ought to cut your hair. I can’t see your face.

2) Make a Suggestion about something that would be better for you (or someone else)

You ought to eat less ice cream or you won’t fit into your bathing suit.

3) Make some General Statement about what would be desirable:

The Central Bank ought to reduce interest rates.


And here are some more facts about ought to:

  • Ought to is a modal verb. Modal verbs are verbs like can, have to, must, should, will.
  • Like with most other modals, ought to doesn’t change its form when it’s put after a different pronoun: I ought to, you ought to, he ought to, we ought to, they ought to.
  • After ought to, you use the infinitive, the basic form of the verb.
  • And similar to most modals, you can’t put them in the past or in the future. Although you can make a past form of ought to with ought to have + V3. Like this:

I ought to have booked those tickets sooner. Their price has gone up.

We ought to have a taken a right turn at the barn house. This is the wrong road.

You ought to have told me before.

The Meaning of Ought To in the Past

In the past, ought to expresses regret at something that should have been.

  • Ought to can be replaced by the following (semi-) modals:
  1. Should
  2. Had better

Ought To in the Negative

  • Negatives are made by adding not (and not don’t or doesn’t):

You ought not to take antibiotics when you only have a cold.

Anyone with a sinus problem ought not to dive, unless with a doctor’s consent.

Students ought not to ask a question when their professor is in the middle of a sentence.

Negatives in the Past

You ought not to have eaten that piece of cake. I reserved it for Grandma.

You ought not to have gone out in your t-shirt. No wonder you’ve caught a cold.

Questions with Ought To

  • Questions with ought to are unusual, because they’re very formal.

They are made by turning round the subject and the verb, so that ought comes first, then the subject, and then to.


Ought she to see a doctor?

Ought the government to care for us until we die?

Ought he not to be at school around this time?


As exercise, I suggest you read the quotes on the slides that use ought to and try to understand them. There are some really wise thoughts there.





This quiz is on intermediate level, which means there are no sentences with ought to in the past.

Do this quiz online here.

Rewrite the sentences using ought to.


Question: You should see a doctor about that cough.

Answer: You ought to see a doctor about that cough.

1 I should tell my manager about my mistake.

2 You had better phone her about this immediately.

3 Female travellers had better be careful travelling alone in that country.

4 The police shouldn’t wait looking into this matter.

5 You should cancel your theatre tickets at least two days in advance.

6 You should be more careful about whom you’re going out with.

7 I shouldn’t eat so many snacks before I go to bed.


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