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Should, Ought to, Supposed to and Had Better – Video Lesson

by Oli Redman on 9 February, 2017 , No comments

In this lesson, you can learn how to use the modal and semi-modal verbs should, ought to, had better and supposed to.

We use these verbs to give advice, express opinions, to give warnings or to criticise someone. These verbs are similar in meaning, but not exactly the same. That means you need to understand exactly what each verb means to use them correctly when you speak.

1. How to Use Should

Let’s look quickly at the different ways you can use should in English.

For this lesson, we’ll use should as our ‘base’ verb. You’ll learn about the other verbs, like supposed to or had better, by comparing them to should.

This means you need to have a good understanding of should.

First, you can use should to give advice:

  • You should buy the green one. It suits you. –> I advise you to do this.
  • You shouldn’t go to bed so late. It’s bad for you. –> This is my advice.

You can use should to express your opinion.

  • Everyone should see that film. It’s amazing! –> I’m giving you my opinion about the film.
  • The government should raise taxes on the rich. –> This is my opinion, what I think should happen.

Obviously, advice and opinion are similar, and often they’re the same thing.

You can also use should—often in the past—to criticise someone else.

  • You shouldn’t have said that. –> I think you did the wrong thing.
  • He should have studied harder for his exams. –> I don’t think he studied enough.

What connects all of these cases?

In all these uses of should, you use should to express what you think is the best thing to do.

If I say you should…, I mean I think it’s best if you…

Now, let’s look at ought to.

2. Should vs. Ought to

In meaning, ought to is exactly the same as should. If you can use should in a sentence, you can also use ought to.

For example, you can say:

  • You should buy the green one.
  • You ought to buy the green one.

You can say:

  • Everyone should see that film.
  • Everyone ought to see that film.

There’s no difference in meaning. In both cases, the two sentences with should and ought to have the same meaning.

However, there are a couple of differences in how you use ought to.

First, ought to is more formal, more old-fashioned, and less common in modern spoken English.

That means you probably won’t use ought to unless you are writing, or you want to sound very formal.

Secondly, ought to has a slightly different form. Obviously, you need to add to. Also, the negative form is not generally contracted. So, you can say:

  • You shouldn’t have said that.

With should not, you can contract it to shouldn’t. However, with ought to, you need to use the full form.

  • You ought not to have said that.

Again, with ought to the sentence sounds very formal, and it’s unlikely that you’d actually say this.

With should, you can make questions, like this:

  • What time should I get there?

With ought to, you can technically make questions, but they sound ridiculously formal:

  • What time ought I to get there?

This sounds really old-fashioned and unnatural, so I advise that you don’t use ought to in this way!

So, to review, ought to has the same meaning as should, but a different form. It’s also more formal and less common.

Let’s look at our next verb.

3. How to Use Supposed To

Supposed to is similar to should, but there’s an important difference. Look at two sentences:

  • I should be there at 9:00.
  • I’m supposed to be there at 9:00.

Can you see the difference in meaning?

If not, here’s a clue. Both sentences mean that someone thinks it’s important for you to be there at 9:00. The important question is: who thinks so?

How to Use 'Should', 'Ought to', 'Supposed to' and 'Had Better' - Video Lesson - clock image

The first sentence:

  • I should be there at 9:00.

…means that you think this is important. It’s important for you personally to be there at 9:00.

The second sentence:

  • I’m supposed to be there at 9:00.

…means that someone else thinks it’s important for you to be there at 9:00. You might not care, and using supposed to suggests that you probably don’t.

For example, imagine your boss organizes a meeting for 9:00 one morning. You know the meeting is going to be a waste of time. People will talk about a load of pointless stuff, and the meeting will go on much longer than it needs to.

However, your boss thinks it’s important that everyone attends. So, you might say:

  • I’m supposed to go to the meeting at 9:00.

In this case, the meeting is not important to you, but it is important to someone else (your boss). This is a good example of when you might use supposed to.

Let’s do one more example. Imagine we’re at a wedding, and I’m wearing jeans and an old T-shirt. You say:

  • You should have worn something more formal!
  • You were supposed to wear something more formal!

Can you tell the difference now?

In the first sentence, with should, you’re criticising me directly. You think I look too scruffy, and that I made a mistake by dressing too informally.

In the second sentence, with supposed to, you’re suggesting that you don’t personally care about my appearance, but that other people might expect me to dress more formally.

There’s one more way to use supposed to. Look at an example:

  • I was supposed to finish this essay yesterday.

Can you tell what this means?

It means that you didn’t finish your essay, and you don’t really want to finish your essay.

This shows you another common way to use supposed to: use it to talk about things you don’t want to do, or things which you aren’t planning to do.

For example:

  • I shouldn’t come with you to the cinema. I’m supposed to be revising. –> I’m not revising, and I don’t want to. In fact, maybe I will come to the cinema!
  • I’m supposed to wear a tie, but hardly anyone in the office actually does. –> I don’t wear a tie, and I don’t care about wearing one.

To review, supposed to has a similar meaning to should, but while should expresses what you think is the right thing to do, supposed to expresses what other people think is the right thing to do.

Let’s move on!

4. How to Use Had Better

Again, let’s start with a pair of sentences:

  • You should finish everything today.
  • You’d better finish everything today.

Can you tell the difference?

Here’s a clue: using had better gives more information than just using should. What extra information am I communicating if I use had better instead of should?

Had better expresses a warning or a threat. Like should, you’re giving advice or expressing your opinion about the right thing to do. However, with had better, you’re also saying that something bad will happen if the other person doesn’t listen to you.

So, if I say:

  • You should finish everything today.

…using should suggests that you have a choice. I think it’s better if you finish everything today, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

But, if I say:

  • You’d better finish everything today.

…I’m suggesting that you don’t really have a choice, because if you don’t do what I say, something bad will happen.

With had better, you can even put the bad consequences into your sentence, like this:

  • You’d better finish everything today, or the boss won’t be happy.

How to Use 'Should', 'Ought to', 'Supposed to' and 'Had Better' - Video Lesson - unhappy boss image

Let’s look at some more examples:

  • You’d better leave now, or you’ll miss your train.
  • He’d better apologise, or I’ll never talk to him again!

Sometimes, the bad consequence is a kind of threat, like this:

  • You’d better be on time, or you could lose your job.

However, it can just be a way to motivate the other person to do what you say:

  • You’d better finish everything today, because you won’t have time tomorrow.

But, even if you don’t put the bad consequences into your sentence, the idea is still there. If I say:

  • You’d better be on time.

You would still understand that something bad will happen if you’re not on time, even though I’m not saying what that bad thing is.

Let’s do a review.

5. Review

We use the verbs should, ought to, supposed to and had better to say what you or other people think is the right thing to do.

That means these verbs express advice, opinion, criticism or (for had better), warnings or threats.

Should and ought to have the same meaning, although ought to is much more formal and is not commonly used in spoken English.

Supposed to refers to what other people think is right, while should expresses what you think is right.

Had better expresses the idea that something bad will happen if you don’t do what I say. This is why had better can also be used to make threats or give someone a warning.

If you liked this lesson, be sure to watch our other modal verbs lesson to express ability: Can, Could and Be Able to.

Thanks for watching. See you next time!

Oli RedmanShould, Ought to, Supposed to and Had Better – Video Lesson