Modals vs. expect to
Can the words "ought to," "should," and "expect
to" be used interchangeably when the idea is expectation? Which one
is more formal?
Posted 03 January 2002
It is often possible to use "ought to," "should," and "expect to" interchangeably when the idea is expectation:
Hi, Mary! Laura speaking. I'm on my way, and I should / ought
to / expect to be at your house in half an hour.
All of the choices in Situation 1 mean that it is probable that Laura will be at Mary's house in half an hour. Here is another situation in which "should," "ought to," and "expect to" can be used interchangeably:
Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We are flying
at 35,000 feet in beautiful weather, and we should / ought
to / expect to arrive in Paris at 7:00 a.m., right on time.
In both Situation 1 and Situation 2 above, the choice of "expect to" would
be slightly more formal than the other two choices in the sentence.
Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik, in A Communicative Grammar of English,
2nd ed. (Longman, 1994), state:
The auxiliaries "should" and "ought
to" can express
"probability"; they are weaker equivalents of "must"?
Our guests should / ought to be home by now. (They probably are,
but I'm not certain.)
"Should" is more frequent than "ought to." In addition,
L.G. Alexander in Longman English Grammar (Longman, 1988) lists "should" as slightly stronger than "ought
Another way to express probability for the future is to use "likely." The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Longman,
1999) shows the use of "likely" to be much more frequent than either "should" or "ought to" in academic language and news. A typical sentence with "likely" is:
Increasing controls are likely to be imposed in this area.
You could also say:
It is likely that increasing controls will be imposed
in this area.
Sentences (c) and (d) have the same tone as (e) and (f) below, with "expect"
used in the passive:
It is expected that increasing controls will be imposed
in this area.
Increasing controls are expected to be imposed in this
In Situation 3 ?sentences (c) through (f) above ?neither "should" nor
"ought to" is appropriate in the context that appears. However, if an
adverbial ?such as "by next week," or "within the next month" ?were
added, we could more comfortably use these modals, as well as "likely"
or "expected," in sentence (g) below:
Increasing controls should / ought to / are likely to/ are
expected to be imposed in this area within the next month.
The Grammar Exchange is hopeful that there will be more comments on
the use of "should," "ought to," "expected" and "likely" from our readers.