Ought to and Had Better for intermediate learners

'Ought to' and 'Had Better' are used for giving advice and recommendations. These are used differently and they can have different meanings. Start learning!

"Ought to and Had Better" in English Grammar

What Are Ought to and Had Better?

'Ought to' and 'had better' are both semi-modal verbs in English that are used to express obligation or advisability, but they have slightly different meanings and usage.


'Ought to' and 'had better' are both semi-modal verbs which have some of the characteristics of modals verbs but are not true modals.


Be careful that these verbs are called semi-modals only because of 'to' in 'ought to' and 'better' in 'had better'. They have all the other characteristics of modal verbs and are never used without the main verb in sentences. Study the following examples carefully:

You'd better study hard. (Not you'd better hard)

He ought to care for his parents more. (Not he ought to his parents)

Just like other modal verbs, this pair is used with the simple form of the verb in statements. Look at the examples below:

I'd better clean my clothes today, or I will get fired.

Here, ('d better) is the short form of 'had better'.

They'd better leave the office quickly then.

She ought to pour me a cup of coffee right now.

We ought to study for our next exam tomorrow.

As you can see, 'ought' always comes with the particle 'to'.

These two can also be used in negative statements and questions. However, 'should' is more frequently used in such forms.

To form negatives with 'ought to', 'not' is added between 'ought' and 'to'. However, to form negatives with 'had better', not is added after the modal verb.
Pay attention to the examples:

She ought not to come late today.

As you can see, not comes between 'ought' and 'to.

They ought not to swim in the lake at night.

In informal conversations 'oughtn't to' is used, but never in formal, written English.

He'd better not leave the house at noon.

We'd better not say anything right now.

The structure used for forming questions with "ought to" is:
Ought + subject + to + base form of the verb
The structure used for forming questions with "had better" is:
Had + subject + better + base form of the verb
Pay attention to the examples:

Ought she to write a letter to her mother?

Ought you to go to university now?

Had you better take an exam tonight?

Here, pay attention to where the subject and the modal verb are placed.

Had she better wake up early today?


These two semi-modal verbs are used for:

  • Giving recommendation and advice
  • Expressing expectation


Another use of 'ought to' is to indicate likelihood or probability of an event in the present or near future. Pay attention to the example below:

With all this fog, it ought to rain today.

Here the sentence shows that with such weather, it will probably rain.

Giving Recommendation and Advice

'Ought to' and 'had better' are semi-modal verbs that can be used to give recommendations or advice to someone. They are often used to indicate what is the best course of action in a particular situation, or to suggest a particular behavior or decision. 'Ought to' is often used to suggest a more moral or ethical obligation, while 'had better' is often used to suggest a more pragmatic or urgent need.
Study the following examples carefully:

You ought to eat more fruits and vegetables.

We ought to respect other people's opinions, even if we disagree with them

They'd better take a nap in the evening.

I'd better study harder or I'll mess up the next interview, too.


Sometimes, 'ought to' is used to show obligation and the necessity of doing something. Remember not to use 'had better' in this context. Look at the example below:

She ought to study to get her professor's permission.

As you can see, the sentence shows that it is a necessity for her to study.

Expressing Expectation

'Ought to' and 'had better' can also be used to express expectations or desires for a particular outcome or result, either in the present or near future. In such cases, it is implied that if the desired result is not achieved, there will be negative consequences. Pay attention to the following examples:

She'd better get here before her boss gets angrier.

They'd better leave quickly or they will miss the train.

It ought to rain tonight or we'll soon be exposed to draught.

He ought to talk less than that in the company of the mayor.


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