Does "oughtn't" require a "to"?

Song Sprite

Senior Member
English, Canada
The other thread is covering waaaaay too much ground, so I thought I'd start a fresh one for this aspect of it.

Well? Is it (1) "I oughtn't fight" or (2) "I oughn't to fight", or are both acceptable?

Interestingly, out of (3) "I ought to fight" and (4) "I ought fight", clearly only the former is correct. This would lead me to believe that (1) is also incorrect... but has it been used often enough to have been accepted as "good English"?
 
  • Hockey13

    Senior Member
    AmEnglish/German
    I disagree. I think if you break down the sentence:

    We ought not to fight.

    We ought not fight.

    The second one sounds much more natural to me.

    Edit: Now that I think about this a little more, there is one instance where it sounds natural to me and that is "We ought not to do this." Perhaps my problem is that "ought" is not often used anymore.
     

    l3376876

    Banned
    Chinese, Taiwan
    Well, according to prescriptive grammarians, only (2) is correct.Yet, every language is living and changing all the times. In terms of descriptive grammar, both (1) and (2) are acceptable.
     

    mplsray

    Senior Member
    The other thread is covering waaaaay too much ground, so I thought I'd start a fresh one for this aspect of it.

    Well? Is it (1) "I oughtn't fight" or (2) "I oughn't to fight", or are both acceptable?

    Interestingly, out of (3) "I ought to fight" and (4) "I ought fight", clearly only the former is correct. This would lead me to believe that (1) is also incorrect... but has it been used often enough to have been accepted as "good English"?
    A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by Randolph Quirk et al., in section 3.43, identifies ought to as a modal which has ought not to and oughtn't to as negatives. "It normally has the to-infinitive (although occasionally in familiar style the bare infinitive occurs in nonassertive contexts)." Your example I ought fight is grammatically incorrect because it uses the bare infinitive in the context of an assertive statement.

    The authors have a note in which they state that tests have shown that young people, both those who speak American English and those who speak British English, prefer the to-less form in nonassertive contexts, as in Ought we (to) have done it? The flip side of this would be that older English-speakers prefer the to-form in nonassertive contexts.
     

    Joseph A

    Senior Member
    Kurdish
    Hello everyone,
    I read this thread. I saw two different answers from two native speakers. I asked the same question in another forum, and a non-native speaker said "oughtn't to base" is wrong. Could you please tell me if the "to" is wrong in the following sentence?
    He oughtn't to study.
     

    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    We say "You ought to do that". When me we make that sentence negative I don't think there's any reason to change from full to bare infinitive.

    You oughtn't (ought not) to do that.

    I even hear people say "You didn't ought to do it". I've never noticed anyone using the bare infinitive.
     
    Last edited:

    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    What can I say? Find a better textbook.

    Edit: I'm not saying that no native speaker ever uses ought or oughtn't with a bare infinitive, but I'm sure it isn't standard. It's either an error (since "ought/oughtn't" is tending to be dropped in favour of "should/shouldn't"), or an antiquated form that may still be used in some regions or by some individuals.
     
    Last edited:

    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    The OED says…

    Ought, in standard English, has many of the characteristics of the other modal auxiliaries, notably the lack of inflections and tense distinction and the absence of the do construction in forming negatives and interrogatives. The main exception to this is the retention of the to-infinitive. The construction with bare infinitive arises early in Middle English and survives to the present day, in modern English especially in non-assertive contexts (compare need v.2 10c), but this has never become standard, perhaps owing to the influence of the parallel deontic have to (see have v.42a). In common with must (see must v.1.7), the negative that syntactically modifies ought semantically modifies the following infinitive.
    But don’t try looking it up in Lexico. They don’t seem to have a main entry for ought, though presumably there is a definition hidden away somewhere on that site.
     

    Laurentiana

    Member
    English - Canada
    This native speaker will simply remark that the discussion is all but irrelevant in North America. There’s a strong preference on this continent for should where ought would be used in the UK. The preference for shouldn’t over oughtn’t is even stronger. As you all know, should in a modal verb is not followed by the infinitive in either a positive or a negative expression. So, on this side at least, on to the next thread.
     

    kentix

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    I am mostly in line with my Canadian neighbor above. I hear ought in normal conversation but I almost never hear oughtn't or ought not. Perhaps it might be used in a consciously melodramatic way, "I warned you that you ought not do that! Now you see what happens when you don't listen."
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    If you add an emphatic "even", the version without "to" it sounds quite natural to me:

    Compare
    "It ought not even be there."
    "It ought not to even be there."
     

    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I doubt if the usage differs much between AE and BE. It’s entirely likely that should and shouldn’t are used much more than any construction using ought.

    BNC (UK)
    ought to — 4,970
    should — 107,822 (approx. 21 times more)

    COCA (US)
    ought to — 24,010

    should — 435,903 (approx. 18 times more)
     

    Laurentiana

    Member
    English - Canada
    I doubt if the usage differs much between AE and BE. It’s entirely likely that should and shouldn’t are used much more than any construction using ought.

    BNC (UK)
    ought to — 4,970
    should — 107,822 (approx. 21 times more)

    COCA (US)
    ought to — 24,010

    should — 435,903 (approx. 18 times more)
    So, I doubt or I doubt if ... new thread?
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    I had never considered what rules "ought" follows before reading this thread, and I don't recall ever being formally taught them, but I don't think I would include "to" in any of the "ought not" phrases in this thread. In my mind, "not" seems to take the place of "to".
     
    < Previous | Next >
    Top