To Forego or Not to Forgo?

courtesy of Zazzle Productions

We’re going to have a field day, in this blog, with the words so frequently and annoyingly confused in English—not just by spell check, but also by those who never grasped the differences between “flout” and “flaunt,” “effect” and “affect,” “further” and “farther,” and so on. Today I’m obsessed with just one of these teeth-grinding misuses, because I have a hard time getting my dander up about it. I refer to the difference between forego and forgo, which one online grammarian refers to as a “persistent problem.”

The alleged misuses of these two words offend those of us who are sensitive to the meanings of prefixes. We can tolerate the variant spellings of “advisor/adviser,” “theatre/theater,” “catalog/catalogue,” and even “flautist/flutist,” because we see these differences as orthographical and not denotational. But “fore-” means “to come before” whereas “for-” means “to do without,” so when a headline reads, for instance, “Apple Foregoing USB 3.0 for Light Peak in Early 2011” we are wracked by the absurdity of the claim.

But let’s consider the ways in which these words are properly used. How often, for instance, does anyone claim to forego anything? Its usage can be found, certainly, in the OED—in Culpeper and Cole’s 1668 Anatomy, in which “The constriction of the Earlets does always forego the Diastole of the Ventricles”; and again, past tense, in Payne’s 1884 Tales From Arabia, in which (quite marvelously) “his head forewent his feet and he fell to the ground.” But today? Of the 6.7 million Google hits of the word, many refer to the name of a lucky horse, and almost all others use the word to mean “forgo,” as in “St. Louis Rams Forego Andrew Luck.” I kind of like to think of that one in its strict meaning, as a parade with all those Rams followed by a guy named Luck, but I know that in fact the Rams had their season—and possibly their parade—without Luck.

Similarly, how often does anyone use the past participle of “forgo”? Google numbers for “forgone” are less than a third that of “foregone,” but more to the point, the most common phrase concerned—a “foregone/forgone conclusion,” remains the same. Here, the literal meaning is almost the opposite of the intended one—that is, “Forgone Conclusion for Kazakh Presidential Election” would have to mean, not that we could easily predict the winner, but that we are skipping or rebuffing the election’s conclusion, presumably in favor of anarchy or a coup. Thus, so long as the prefix in question is followed by “gone,” we pretty much know what’s meant.

The only form of the verbs that finds almost equal amounts of proper usage is the present participle—“forgoing” or “foregoing.” Even here, though, the usages are strikingly different. Plenty of legal documents and official applications make reference to “the foregoing testimony” or “the foregoing powers,” using the participle as an adjective. By contrast, the Marinsky Ballet “is forgoing the classics” and many people “are forgoing expensive medical treatment”—instances of the present participle as part of a present progressive verb. So sure, technically, we could read the headline “Men Foregoing Foreskin” and try to come up with a way in which men preceded their own foreskins, but in fact we understand that the question at hand is of male circumcision and not of something more existential.

In other words, the meaning of the word is hard to miss, regardless of its misspelling. The substitution of “fore” for “for” or vice versa also has a long pedigree, going back at least to Webster’s 1828 dictionary, which defined “foregone” as “forborne to be possessed and enjoyed.” So I intend to stop fretting about it. After all, once you start down this road, there’s no end to the demons that can beset you. For instance, I found a wonderful, and correct, instance of “forgone” as an adjective in one personal blog, only to run into trouble when the reflective author continued: “Sometimes the alternative forgone could have been a crappy choice, but the fact still remains that we’ll never know and this gives our imagination free reign … .”

Oh well. More fodder.

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