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
    Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 17:24

4 Answers 4


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
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 19:49
  • 1
    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. Commented Jul 24, 2015 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
    Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 0:11

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.

  • 3
    "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
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 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
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 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". Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 23:13
  • 2
    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. Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 3:17
  • 1
    @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. Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 15:59

"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.


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

In this sentence, only "should" is possible (of the two options). (It is also possible to use the subjunctive: "...that the documents be destroyed...".) "Should be" here expresses exactly the same meaning as "be". This use of "should" is rare in AmE, but fairly common in BrE.

So, "should" and "ought to" differ, because "ought to" cannot replace "should" in any of the following situations:

  • Mandative "should" replacing a mandative subjunctive (see above).
  • Other quasi-subjunctive uses of "should", e.g. "I am surprised that you should have returned" (which is almost the same as "I am surprised that you have returned").
  • Conditional "should" in "If he should come here, I'll phone the police" or "Should he come here, I'll phone the police", where "if he should come" is a more formal alternative to "if he comes".
  • "Should" as an exact equivalent of "would" (in the first person only), e.g. "I should be surprised", "I shouldn't think so", "I should if I were you", etc. Some (especially older) speakers of southern British English still use this as a natural part of everyday speech. Others may find it old-fashioned or perhaps even confusing.

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