Should vs Ought

lionrideshorseIt’s a distinction I have a hard time making. While a quick scan through recent writing projects shows I opt for should over ought, I feel I do the opposite when talking. I feel I ought to say should, but I opt mostly for ought. So I took it, as I ought’ve months ago, to the dictionary to see for sure:

Reserve ought for expressing obligation, duty, or necessity, and use should for expressing suitability or appropriateness.

So I’ve got a new rule of thumb: “should is appropriate,” meaning that when given the choice should not only expresses appropriateness but is pretty much always the more appropriate word than ought.

It’s not that easy, though, in that doing one’s duty is doing what’s appropriate and often vice versa, so I’m afraid I’m going to continue to opt for ought because it sounds smarter and more literate. This is a boring post, I know, but here’s what I’m really trying to get at: I’ll always go for the higher-diction option in this situation. I feel bad when I say who when whom is appropriate, even when usage guides whose authority I trust tell me that whom is pretty much gone from any non-formal use.

Hypercorrecting up might be the clearest marker of pretentiousness. It’s, like, its definition maybe. I’m sure I hypercorrect on ought, and I know I hypercorrect on further v. farther, but I think I’m good at not hypercorrecting to “[X] and I” models when used in non-subjective cases (e.g. My mailman never gave my dog and I much love). I grew up among friends where one’s grammar/usage errors became weapons for others to rhetorically destroy you with[1], and so it became over time important for me to be right and that importance still lingers well into adulthood. It’s a problem I need to work on harder.

And yet, I don’t know: my voice is mine. Do I sound pretentious in conversation? Probably. Did I get Amazon Reader Reviews on my book that called out its arrogant tone? Yes. Do I have a choice on how I sound? Sure, but I’ve spent so long worrying that I wasn’t coming across the way I needed to in order for others to see me as normal/interesting and like me as a result, and all that worry still hasn’t made me normal or interesting. Not in the way I’d hoped. And I’m getting tired of worrying. It’s really important for me to be right. But it’s also fun to be wrong, I’m slowly learning.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Despite what you may have been told or picked up, it’s 100% a-okay to end sentences in English with prepositions. It’s not grammatically possible to do this in Latin, however, and so where this non-rule comes from is like 100-year-old attempts on the part of misguided philologists to make English operate more like Latin, which they’d thought to for whatever reason be ideal and perfected. Ditto with the split infinitive.

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