She has consented thus to consider the matter in doubt, and to leave to a foreign arbitration that which she believes fully admits of no doubt. The Government of the United States has declined this manner of settlement, resorted to by all nations in similar cases, when she should ought to adopt it, if she believes that reason and right is on her side. (Source: The New York Times, 3 Dec 1860)

Can we use, at least in some cases, two modals when we want to express possibility and obligation at the same time? Is this the reason why "should ought" is used in the piece above?


1 Answer 1


Your explanation for why “should ought” is used in the excerpt may be correct. Because the excerpt is from a translated legal document, other possibilities exist. For example, the translator may have translated literally; or the translator's speech patterns may have favored double modals; or it might be a circumlocution common in some law offices.

Page 134 of One Hundred Years of English Studies in Dutch Universities: Seventeen Papers, edited by G.H.V. Bunt (1) has some discussion of double modals, including should ought.

Pages 267-269 of Focus on the United States of America, edited by Edgar W. Schneider (2) discuss the distribution of double modals in American speech; should ought is among those used in the American South. I imagine that when the article was published 150 years ago no one found the construction unusual or had trouble understanding it. Nowadays it's likely to be looked askance at by most English speakers, even though it's used by many people in several regions.

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