oughtn't we [to] be?

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lucas-sp

Senior Member
English - Californian
Hello everyone -

I'm editing an academic article, and I realized I don't know the answer to this question. In a rhetorical question, where the answer expected is "yes, we ought to be X," is it more proper to use "oughtn't we to be X" or "oughtn't we be X"? Here's the source:
if (this thing being critiqued) turns out to be a key, if not the key, structure vehiculing the institution and reproduction of our social reality, oughtn’t we to be a bit more skeptical of readings that posit its power as mystical, otherworldly, and emancipatory?
So the author is saying "If this thing might be really bad, oughtn't we to be more skeptical about people who say that it has good qualities?"

On the one hand, the expected answer is "yes, we ought to be." And I'm pretty certain "ought" takes "to," and not just bare infinitives (like "should" does). But I really don't like that "to," for some reason. I could easily change it to "shouldn't we be," which side-steps the whole issue, but I do like "ought" (and clearly the wordy author likes "ought" too). Should "oughtn't we [to] be?" have a "to," or not? Should inverted questions with "ought" take a "to" in any circumstances?
 
  • sdgraham

    Senior Member
    USA English
    I'm a decidedly nonacademic writer, but I seem to recall somewhere that academic writing eschews contractions.

    Ought we not, therefore, avoid them therein?

    (I actually might use it that way, but academically constrained people might think I was making fun of them)
     

    Destruida

    Senior Member
    English (England)
    On the one hand, the expected answer is "yes, we ought to be." And I'm pretty certain "ought" takes "to," and not just bare infinitives (like "should" does).
    Yes, it does. Yes, we ought be - say it aloud! (Don't like the green grinney, or I'd insert it here.)
    But I really don't like that "to," for some reason.
    Could it be because you've been speaking or reading a different language very recently (of course you are, as you're translating) and something's got stuck? That happened to me a lot, even when I had a brain.
     

    ribran

    Senior Member
    English - American
    I did some research on this once because I had the same question. In questions and negative sentences, I, like many other young speakers, can delete the "to."

    Oughtn't we (to) give her flowers? :tick:
    You oughtn't (to) do that. :tick:
     

    lucas-sp

    Senior Member
    English - Californian
    I'm a decidedly nonacademic writer, but I seem to recall somewhere that academic writing eschews contractions.

    Ought we not, therefore, avoid them therein?
    I don't mind the dreaded contractions that much, personally... I think they can save space and be a little more punchy than the expanded forms, which is fun for a reader. I'm not translating, so I can't blame this on cross-linguistic interference.

    I just poked around a little myself, ribran, and I got the sense that dropping the "to" is a new American thing, among us young folk who are naturally scared of infinitives. But I sortof got the impression that SD would drop the "to" too. So the question occurs - how young is young?

    Since academics are effectively three times as old as anyone else, I'll leave the "to" in. It'll strike a nice compromise between the contraction and the archaism, i.e. just be really jarring.
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    I would say either "ought we not be" or "shouldn't we".

    I put in the to when it can immediately follow ought:

    We never ought to be this hasty.
    We ought to always be skeptical.

    When the subject or a negative adverb (including hardly) immediately follows ought, I don't use the to:

    We ought not be this hasty.
    We ought never be this hasty.
    We ought hardly be this hasty.
    Ought we not try to be more skeptical?
    Not only ought we try to be more skeptical but we should also endeavor to keep our heads regardless of what goes on around us.
    Never ought we be this hasty.
    Ought we be this hasty?

    When something other than the subject or a negative adverb intervenes, I use to in short simple sentences (but tend to leave it out when things get complicated):

    We ought always (to) be as skeptical as possible.
     

    Pertinax

    Senior Member
    BrE->AuE
    Google Books popularity stakes:

    1000 oughtn’t we be
    6000 oughtn’t we to be
    90000 ought we not be
    57000 ought we not to be

    Personally I would use the least popular option: "oughtn't we be". :cool:
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Google Books popularity stakes:
    Beware google-numbers:D

    If you click through to the last page of results, the numbers are:
    30 oughtn’t we be
    317 oughtn’t we to be
    228 ought we not be
    426 ought we not to be.
     

    boozer

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    Starting some 25-30 years ago I have been repeatedly and consistently taught that "ought we not be" and, in fact, all uses of 'ought' without 'to', are damn wrong and I would have been severely penalised, if not beheaded, if I had even once used it that way. I have not had any reasons to change my mind and I still use 'ought' only with 'to'... :( As regards the original question, I like Sdgraham's answer (except for the 'therein' part which is quaint but might really be interpreted as making fun of people :D )
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    The OED has affirmative, negative and interrogative examples of ought+bare infinitive going back to 1225; it says, though, that it's "now" usually found in negative and interrogative constructions, and all the citations since 1750 are negative or interrogative, the latest two being
    1992 J. Stern & M. Stern Encycl. Pop. Culture 403/1 There ought not be any doubt about it: Elvisism has begun.
    1999 Oxf. Times 26 Mar. (Weekend Suppl.) 5/3 Ought I feel ashamed of my ignorance?


    Personally, I find both those examples exceedingly strange. The only context in which I might, just, use ought+bare infinitive is in a negative-interrogative with a lengthy subject, as in the second sentence here:
    In view of the proven pain and loss conferred uniquely upon children by divorcing parents, ought not the Princess Royal to reconsider her position as President of the Save the Children Fund? Further, in response to the growing impression given to the public by the highest in the land that repudiation of the marriage vows is acceptable, ought not cardinals, archbishops and Christian leaders in general abandon their fears of seeming "judgmental"?
    (Source: British National Corpus - extract from a letter to the Daily Telegraph)


    But even then, it sounds decidedly weighty/literary to me - I would be much more likely to re-word the sentence instead.

    So my answer to lucas' original question is "I can't imagine ever using oughtn't we be instead of oughtn't we to be":(.
    I wonder if this is, perhaps, another older usage which AmE has retained but which BrE is in the process of dropping?
     
    Last edited:

    jarabina

    Senior Member
    English - Scotland
    I wonder if this is, perhaps, another older usage which AmE has retained but which BrE is in the process of dropping?
    I'm not sure if this is just me or if it's a Scottish thing. I rarely use ought but if I were to, I would say: 'You ought not do that!" without the to. (Without the contraction - since I would only say (not write) it and it is very strong.) In fact 'you ought not to do that' sounds totally wrong to my ears (as it does with the contraction), even though I know it's not. In the positive, however, I would use the to: You ought to go now.

    Since there are sometimes similarities between Scottish and American English that have disappeared in English English, this might be another example?
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Since 'ought' is in form a past tense of 'owe' (though perhaps in reality a subjunctive), it ought in theory to be followed by 'to', and I believe that cannot be regarded as wrong.
    Using 'ought' in certain circumstances without 'to' is evidently long established (see Loob's post 11) and seems to be a matter of style. Forero's list of occasions for omitting it (post 6) is in my opinion good style advice.
     

    Pertinax

    Senior Member
    BrE->AuE
    Beware google-numbers:D

    If you click through to the last page of results, the numbers are:
    30 oughtn’t we be
    317 oughtn’t we to be
    228 ought we not be
    426 ought we not to be.
    Thank you, Loob. I have taken another look at these, breaking them down by century (19th, 20th):
    1,22 oughtn’t we be
    43,229 oughtn’t we to be
    39,156 ought we not be
    416,429 ought we not to be
    The last set of numbers doesn't add up even if you click through to the last page - does it stop looking at about 420 results?

    Changing "be" to "go" yields somewhat more consistent results (for total, 19thC, 20thC):
    23,0,16 oughtn’t we go
    219,25,155 oughtn’t we to go
    28,5,20 ought we not go
    337,162,145 ought we not to go
    ... which seems to show the slowly increasing popularity of both the "oughtn't" contraction and the bare infinitive.

    I myself would say (rather inconsistently) "oughtn't we go" and "ought we not to go". My son for once agrees with me. I'm not sure if this reflects an Australian perspective.

    It seems that commentators are equally divided, according to Merriam-Webster's English Usage Dictionary:
    Follett 1966 and Garner 1998 insist on a to-infinitive in every case.
    Evans 1957 and Freeman 1990 accept a bare infinitive as an option in negative statements.
    Bernstein 1971 criticizes both sides, saying the "to" is optional in either negative or positive statements when something intervenes between ought and the infinitive. [This looks like Forero's rule.]
    Quirk et al. 1985 reports that young speakers of both BrE and AmE accept a bare infinitive in “nonassertive contexts.”

    Your OED examples look fine to me, as do their other examples with bare infinitives going back 400 years - despite some misgivings about the 1815 citation:
    Do not get habituated to a word you ought never use.
    ... though I would unreservedly accept "not" instead of "never".
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    From Pertinax's examples, there is probably a difference between the full/bare infinitive use between stative and active verbs.
     

    Pedro y La Torre

    Senior Member
    English (Ireland)
    I'm not sure if this is just me or if it's a Scottish thing. I rarely use ought but if I were to, I would say: 'You ought not do that!" without the to. (Without the contraction - since I would only say (not write) it and it is very strong.) In fact 'you ought not to do that' sounds totally wrong to my ears (as it does with the contraction), even though I know it's not. In the positive, however, I would use the to: You ought to go now.

    Since there are sometimes similarities between Scottish and American English that have disappeared in English English, this might be another example?
    I fully agree jarabina (as a point of reference, Irish and Scottish usage generally correlates strongly with one another). The use of "to" here would sound decidedly strange to me, my brain refuses to process it. :(
     

    jarabina

    Senior Member
    English - Scotland
    I fully agree jarabina (as a point of reference, Irish and Scottish usage generally correlates strongly with one another). The use of "to" here would sound decidedly strange to me, my brain refuses to process it. :(
    Nice to have confirmation that it's not just me!
     

    lucas-sp

    Senior Member
    English - Californian
    You are all spectacular. Thanks for all this amazing research.

    I think I've internalized the same rule as ribran; that is, I would prefer "ought I to eat a little more?" to "ought I eat a little more?", but I don't like the "to" in negative phrases.

    I won't reveal what my final decision was (to protect the innocent scholars who have their works edited by me). But this is a fascinating case of so many grammatical turnarounds. Very nifty.
     
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