I teach the English language at a University. One of the many glorious things about my job (and I say this without irony) is that I get to introduce people to the complexities of our language in use. At times this takes the form of grammar exercises (bleghhttt), and at others it’s more nuanced, dealing with semantics and frequency and colloquialism.
One of my favorites that falls into both categories is modals. In the English language, modals imply some interesting things- you may find, he could become, should we assume… you get the drift. Of course there are grammatical rules for the use of modals, but what I love to focus on is modals in use. Specifically the modal ought. Similar in form to need to, which is more common in American English, it implies some kind of moral compulsion: you ought to thinkabout your words, I ought to pay that ticket.
I always have to note in my classes that “ought” is very infrequently used in American English. Outdated? Perhaps. I think it may have more to do with the American spirit. Yes, that spirit that we’d all defend to the death of being able to do what we want, when we want to. The sullen individualism so despised by other countries, the reckless stubborn “personal freedom” that we prize so much. We don’t like being told what to do. The ought is not for us.
It also may have something to do with moral relativism. If there is no moral absolute, and “whatever works for you” is the rule, then where do we get off telling people what they “ought” to do? Possibly the only people I use this word with are my kids- the “you ought to finish your spinach” phrase so beloved by generations of parents. But I have an objective moral authority, so this works. I wonder how it works when one doesn’t? What happens when the child is old enough to say, “why ought I”? Without the ability to access an objective truth, how does one determine values?
Thought lately about ought?