Should? Ought to? Had better? What are these three modal verbs? Why are there three ways to talk about recommendations or suggestions? Are there any differences?
I’m glad you asked! While the verbs are used the same way for nearly the same thing, there are some slight differences. Of the three, ‘should’ is the most neutral. You can use it in many situations to make recommendations and doesn’t indicate any positive or negative consequences. It also is not extremely formal or informal; you can use it in either of these situations.
On the other hand, “ought to” is a much more formal way of saying “should”. It is also has a strong meaning. You do not often see “ought to” written any more; today we mostly use it when speaking, although that is rare as well. Here is an example from the 2016 US Presidential Elections:
Note: “oughta” is the result of combining “ought to” in certain dialects of English.
“Had better” shows not only a recommendation but also that there will be negative consequences if the advice is ignored. For example: “You’d better quit smoking.” This is the same as saying, “You should quit smoking or there will be negative consequences.” Much more concise!
Note: because “you’d” is short for “you had” and the -d is a soft sound, some dialects of English don’t pronounce it. That leaves us with “you better” in this case.
Want to learn more about modal verbs? Here is a guide to all the modal verbs: introduction to modal verbs. You can also learn more about other English language information on my Teaching English page.
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