Forgo, foregoing, foregone…but please not “forwent”

There isn’t a category of words, phrases, and grammar known simply as “ugly English.” But there probably should be. Qualifying immediately for that category would be “forwent.” It’s the past tense of “forgone.”

You’re probably familiar with foregone, as in a foregone conclusion (something that is so likely to happen that it’s accepted as inevitable). That’s primarily how foregone is used in modern speech, as little more than part of a frequently overused phrase.

If you’re sharp eyed, you’ve noticed that I’ve already spelled this word two different ways, “foregone” with an “e” in the middle and “forgone” without it. That wasn’t an accident, and it’s part of what makes these words so maddeningly annoying for writers and editors.

It’s sometimes difficult to keep these words — forgo and forego— straight. They don’t mean the same thing and have different origins, but in common practice the spelling distinction has been lost (if it was ever well known) except to a thin layer of users. A highly educated audience might (stress on the conditional) know the distinction, but the average user won’t. English can be a frustrating nuisance that way.

Forego” (with the middle “e“) means “to go before.” Forgo (without the “e“), on the other hand, means “to do without; pass up voluntarily; waive; renounce” (these definitions from GMAU).  (For simplicity, I’ve used the “-go” forms throughout this post, although everything applies to the “-going“, “-gone“, and “-went” forms, except as noted).

There are several additional definitions in the OED, but aside from the two dealt with here they’re all noted as rare, obscure, or archaic. Which simplifies things for us: two definitions, two spellings; forego, to go before; forgo, to do without. Easy.

Except that this is English. Few things are ever easy.

For one thing, that forgo version — to do without — has an accepted variant spelling of forego. Exactly the same as the other definition. While Garner keeps the distinction clear (with and without the e), it’s clearly a losing battle. All of the big three dictionaries (OED, AHD, and M-W) list both variant spellings as acceptable. OED and M-W do this without comment, while AHD adds a special Usage Note, which is worth a quick read if you’ve come this far.  It’s actually more informative than the definition, since it enlightens the reader on the distinction between for- and fore- in Old and Middle English, which the others don’t. For your sanity and my own, I’ve been strict in this post with the spellings and avoided the variant.

[May I give quick praise here to AHD5 for something? While OED has long been my go-to definitive dictionary, AHD5 has really stepped up the competition. One thing especially are the Usage Notes. They don’t accompany every word, but when they do they’re both informative and well written.]

But I’m getting off track. My intent was to focus on the ugliness of “forwent” (the other “forewent” being, as Garner notes, “hopelessly archaic”).

Forwent is one of the ugliest constructions in modern English to my eye and ear. When I’ve been tempted to use it myself — in speech more than on paper — I’ve stopped and paused to look for alternatives. Saying forwent aloud should be as painful as hearing it, and all involved should try not to let it happen. In point of fact, this isn’t very difficult. For one thing, it’s not a common word to say, but for another there really is no need.

I’m confident when I write here that a writer will never find herself in a position where using “forwent” is the best or only choice. If forwent is the word that seems to fall naturally into place, then a rewrite is called for (use of “naturally” in this sentence is ironic, since using most flavors of forgone verges on the stilted and pedantic to begin with).

Let’s take a look at a couple of real world examples. Here are two sentences which appear one page apart in a work of non-fiction I recently read (as I intend no embarrassment or ridicule, I’m not listing the author or title):

They went to live with relatives elsewhere, studied in church basements, or forwent school altogether.

In the meantime, in the middle of the turmoil over what would become of the children of Mississippi, dozens of school districts forwent federal funding rather than integrate their schools.

These are both otherwise perfectly good sentences made ugly by forwent. Each could easily have been rewritten to avoid it. Here are two alternatives, of the many that exist:

They went to live with relatives elsewhere, studied in church basements, or did without school altogether.

In the meantime, in the middle of the turmoil over what would become of the children of Mississippi, dozens of school districts refused federal funding rather than integrate schools.

We could argue shades of meaning, but I don’t feel anything is lost here. My first change moves the meaning slightly more toward deliberate sacrifice, which is appropriate in context. The second change, I think, actually makes the sentence stronger: “refused” is a more active verb, and since this passage describes how Southern whites worked to deprive black children of an education it strikes me as much more appropriate. “Forwent” in this case is weak academic language and, to be flip, should have been forgone. It doubly clouds the intent here, first by weakening the sentence and second by risking — as it did in my case — that the reader will be taken aback by the simple ugliness of the word and not absorb what you’re trying to say.

It’s worth mentioning that these examples come late in the book. My hunch is that the author and any editors involved were less sharp by the time they reached these pages: use of forwent is frequently, in my mind, associated with rambling on too long and getting a little sloppy.

I’m not the only one who finds forwent to be unsightly and unpleasant on the ear. Megan Risdal, author of the interesting (but sadly short-lived) Language Lyceum blog brought up some related concerns in this post. There are a few other comments along these lines scattered around the Internet. It’s a small sample but in this case it’s indicative, since the word itself is used so sparingly.

What words can you use instead of “forwent“? That’s going to depend on the specific circumstances, but declined and passed are a couple of possibilities that leap to mind. I’ve consulted a few thesauruses* and here are some other options to consider: waived, renounced, eschewed, gave up, sacrificed, did without, refused, relinquished, abstained, skipped. These cover a range of meanings, not all quite the same, but they give you a great starting point.

Before I wrap up completely, let me add a couple pieces of possibly very important trivia to the for(e)go story:

  • We can thank Shakespeare for the phrase “foregone conclusion.” He appears to have been first to put these two words together with the sense used today (in Act III, Scene iii of Othello).
  • While I’ve pointed out that modern dictionaries recognize “forego” as a variant spelling of “forgo,” if you’re writing for a legal audience you’d better be clear about the distinction. The legal profession’s fixation on wordy constructions and archaic verbiage means that this is one field where “forego” (with the “e“) is still used on a regular basis. The legal profession being what it is, I can imagine that using the wrong version could lead to trouble, so be strict with your spelling over there — and at the same time, please, work to simplify and clarify your language. (Here’s a post on this specific point by the eminent Mr. Garner himself.)

Use forgo, foregoing, foregone, and even forgoing, forego, and forgone if you like. But my advice is to always forgo using forwent. As far as I’m concerned, this is already a foregone conclusion.

= = = =

* This is English we’re using here, kids, not Latin or Greek. If you want to use -i for your plurals, go right ahead, but plurals take -s and -es in this town. It’s “thesauruses“.

= = = =

Coming Soon! If you’re a regular reader here, you might recall that around this time of year I spend an entirely unjustified amount of time summarizing the “Word of the Year” (WOTY) candidates from various sources. It’s that time again, and I will probably have something to say about it in the next post (or two…or three…).

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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