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Does anybody know anything about the distribution of the modal "ought" without "to" (in other words, "ought" taking the base infinitive). Eg:

They ought to go home.

vs.

They ought go home.

Is "ought" without "to" an occasional variant? Is it archaic? Is it regional?

The reason I want to know is b/c I teach ESL, and would like to tell my students accurate information. Thank you.

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In present-day English ought may behave like a 'modal' verb, taking an unmarked infinitive, only in negatives and questions, not in ordinary declaratives:

Ought I take that seriously?
You ought not take that seriously. BUT
You ought to take that seriously.

But even in negatives and questions the unmarked infinitive is not always required; for many speakers a marked infinitive is acceptable, too:

Ought I to take that seriously?
You ought not to take that seriously.


ADDED: Even more likely in US speech is the "melded" form oughta:

Oughta we take that seriously?
You oughta not take that seriously.

And this tolerates what looks like lexicalization but is probably better understood as modal stacking:

Do we oughta take that seriously?
You didn't oughta take that seriously.


In any case, this is a question of declining importance: use of ought has decreased markedly in the last couple of generations.

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  • This is a good answer, but like @aml mentioned, a bare ought isn't really modal; the to is just elided. – pydsigner Jun 28 '16 at 1:59
  • @pydsigner I was careful to say that it "behaves" like a modal, not that it is a modal :) And I've added a bit on oughta, which I think is a modal. – StoneyB on hiatus Jun 28 '16 at 9:15
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I have changed my answer.
To understand 'ought', I will coin a word class called 'control verbal'. A control verbal has an event as its direct object. The subject of this sub-event will be 'raised to object', or it will be omitted (raised to subject) if it matches the calling subject. The verb of the sub-event will be cast to infinitive (possibly bare) or cast to participle. A 'pure' modal (like 'should') always controls by 'raising to subject' and 'bare infinitive'. The 'impure' modal 'ought' differs in that the infinitive may be marked (by 'to'). A control verb (like 'need') is a control verbal that has its own 'action', as well as controlling a sub-event. The infinitive marker may be deleted when the control is negated, making it parse like a modal: "He needs to drink, but he need not eat."

Old answer: 'Ought' does not really become modal when the infinitive marker 'to' is elided. Rather, 'ought' is still a 'control verb', but the controlled verb '[to] go' is reduced to a bare infinitive. This is also true of control verbs like 'need' and 'dare'. Because it works with so few verbs, I would call it archaic.

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  • Need and ought are raising verbs aren't they? There needn't be another referendum, for example. – Araucaria - him Jun 28 '16 at 15:54
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    @Araucaria - 'I need/want him to go' is an example of 'raising to object', but 'I need/want [myself] to go' is not, as far as I know. We could use some better terms for 'control/raising' verbs. Change 'need/want' to 'ought' and you will see that the raising to object version is not allowed. – amI Jun 29 '16 at 21:47
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    @BillJ - True modals (like 'should') never take a marked infinitive ('*I should to go.'). Any word that takes a marked infinitive is not a modal, and it is simpler to assume that the infinitive marker can be elided than that the word shifts from control verb to modal. – amI Jun 29 '16 at 21:53
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    Consider the modality because that's where the answer is. If "ought (+ to) is not a modal, then nor is "should", and that would be silly. – BillJ Jul 1 '16 at 21:26
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    @BillJ - You are right. 'Ought' is not a verb. It is a 'control verbal', which is what modals are. It is a synonym of 'should', but doesn't quite share all of the properties of a canonical modal. Modals are on the spectrum of control verbs, but they only 'control'. You are right that 'ought' can control another verb, but never be controlled by another verb or modal. Thanks for making me think. (Modals probably use the same storage methods as control verbs.) – amI Jul 5 '16 at 21:28

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