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It's essential that the documents (should)/(ought to) be destroyed immediately.

Which one is more suitable one as I know "ought to" and "should" are synonyms.

  • "Ought to" is old-fashioned imo. – user124384 Jul 25 '15 at 17:24
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Well, if it's essential, use neither:

It's essential that the documents be destroyed immediately.

Otherwise, the difference is in the connotation. Should has a slightly weaker sound to it, as if the documents should be destroyed, but other concerns could be more pressing. Ought to sounds more like a directive, as in "We ought to destroy these documents (and who's going to do it?)"

EDIT: As @ErikE points out, these is another use of "should" related to this. If these documents were so dangerous you couldn't risk anyone being near them, you could say:

Burn the building down, that all documents therein should be destroyed.

In this case, should is used to mean will be, while lending more poetry to the language. This is a somewhat archaic usage, though still understandable and definitely a unique, attention-grabbing way of saying the same thing.

The gravity of this phrasing could even be used humorously:

Please pour me a beer, that I should slake my thirst

Puts far more importance on beer and thirst than is normal. As Erik alluded, connotations of kings and epic battles can be expected, as this syntax sounds vaguely Shakespearean.

  • 2
    You've hit on the problem in the original sentence but I think your answer could be more well-rounded. Perhaps you'd care to comment on the difference between "be destroyed" and "are destroyed". Also, you might want to elaborate on how the construction "It's essential that the documents should be destroyed immediately" could be seen as using different meaning of should closer to would. Example, in the poetic language "And the king ordered his men to fire the dragon laser, that the enemy ships should be destroyed before reaching land." – ErikE Jul 24 '15 at 19:49
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    There is another common form (in American English, at least) that might also be worth mentioning: "it is essential for the documents to be destroyed." I like your way better, but I hear it this way at least as often. – DoctorDestructo Jul 24 '15 at 23:29
  • instead of 'it's essential' I would just say they must be destroyed. Means the same thing, more or less, but matches the usage of shoud/ought to better. – Dan Jul 25 '15 at 0:11
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In constructions like this, where should is replacing the subjunctive, you can only use should and not ought to. Google says it finds over a million results for "necessary that they should be" (and is willing to show me 500, if you don't trust their counts—as you shouldn't). It finds two hits for "necessary that they ought to be".

If you're writing for an American audience, you should probably just use the subjunctive: "essential that the documents be". But "essential that the documents should be" may be preferred for a British audience.

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    "It is necessary that they should be destroyed" sounds redundant to me. If the documents should be destroyed, than it is necessary that they be destroyed, and vice versa. No? I'd say "It is necessary that they be destroyed" or "they should be destroyed", not both. – Jay Jul 24 '15 at 18:32
  • @Jay, as mentioned in this answer, that's indeed the case for an American audience (which is probably your case). "They should be destroyed" (without "essential" or "necessary") doesn't have the same strength. – Bruno Jul 24 '15 at 18:53
  • I think using the word "should" in this way is worse than redundant, unless your goal is to avoid the absoluteness of the word "essential" by adding a hint of ambiguity to the sentence. Mere redundancy can be achieved by replacing "should" with "must". – DoctorDestructo Jul 24 '15 at 23:13
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    Until relatively recently, essential that it was usually followed by should in the UK. It wasn't any kind of weakening of the phrase; it was just how the grammar worked. See Ngram. It was common in the US in the 19th century as well, although it sounds weird to a lot of Americans now. – Peter Shor Jul 25 '15 at 3:17
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    @DoctorDestructo: I suspect that this should started out as the subjunctive of shall, and indicated the future. But when the subjunctive started dying a slow death in English, it became in England a piece of zombie grammar which didn't really have any purpose. – Peter Shor Jul 27 '15 at 15:59
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"ought to" and "should" can be synonyms, but aren't necessarily. Aside from what's already pointed out in the other answers:

By themselves:

"ought to" makes it clear that it is a decision made by the speaker. "should" can be used in that sense as well, but can also be used in other senses.

The documents ought to be destroyed immediately.

This is clear and means I see a problem with not destroying the documents.

The documents should be destroyed immediately.

This could mean that I see a problem with not destroying the documents. It could also mean that even though I do not agree, I acknowledge the decision made by someone else to immediately destroy the documents. "Ought to" isn't (generally?) used like that.

But if it's essential, then don't use either, use "must".

The documents must be destroyed immediately.

Combined with "essential":

As already answered, "it's essential that [x] should [y]" and "it's essential that [x] [y]" have become somewhat fixed expressions. We do not choose based on the correctness, as they are both correct. We choose based on how common they are. If we choose a highly uncommon version, people may focus on our odd English, instead of focusing on the message we're trying to get across.

As for "it's essential that [x] ought to [y]", do not use it. It does not make sense: "it's essential" attempts to make the claim objective. "Ought to" attempts to make it subjective. It cannot very well be both.

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