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shameless pleading

Forgo, Forego, et al.

With all thy going, get lost.

Dear Word Detective: In the midst of composing an email in which I used the words “foregoing,” “forgive,” and “therefore,” I am wondering whether I should have used “forgoing” seeing as I mean “to go without,” and, secondly, whether “for” and “fore” have any relationship and how they came to be used in such ways. — Danny.

That’s a good question. Or two. Actually, depending on how you look at it, it might beĀ  four or eight questions, and that’s not counting that you left out “therefor,” which is a separate word from “therefore.” I may think of others before we’re done. Anybody want more coffee?

If you were to set out to prove that the English language is a tricky racket (which it is), a good place to start would be with the words “foregoing” and “forgoing,” or, as we will here, with the basic forms “to forgo” and “to forego.” The two words have a lot in common, and there’s the rub. Both first appeared in Old English (as “forgan” and “foregan,” the “gan” meaning “go”), and in both words the “go” is our common English verb “to go,” meaning “to move or proceed.” The difference comes in the prefixes of the two words, “for” and “fore,” which differ by only one letter. “Fore” and “for” spring from the same Germanic root meaning “before,” but the two diverged in meaning in Middle English.

The prefix “for” generally carries a negative connotation, expressing senses of “away,” “rejection,” or “off” (as in “forget”), a connotation of prohibition or exclusion (as in “forbid”), a sense of totality or completeness (as in “forgive”), or expressing abstention or neglect, which brings us to “forgo.” The original meaning of “forgo” was simply “to go past or pass over,” both literally (as in bypassing a town) or, figuratively, to neglect, avoid or ignore. This eventually developed into our modern sense of “to go without, abstain from, deny to oneself, etc.” (“The Pleasures are to be foregone, and the Pains accepted,” 1749).

“Fore” as a prefix carries the general sense of “before” (e.g., “forewarn”) or “at the front of,” either in physical space or time (e.g., “forehead”), as well as senses of “preceding” (“forefathers”) and “superior” (“foreman”). “Forego” therefore means simply “to precede, either in position or time.” In practical use you’re most likely to see “forego” in the forms “foregoing” meaning “preceding” (“Bob decided to ignore their foregoing argument and try to work with Sam”) or “foregone” in the sense of “already done or settled” (“The jury was out only ten minutes because their verdict was a foregone conclusion”).

Incidentally, the tenses of both “forgo” and “forego” follow those of “go” itself, so you have “forwent” and “forgone” (“Ted had forgone dinner but regretted it around midnight”), as well as “forewent” and “foregone.” I am also duty-bound to note that “forgo,” meaning “to abstain from,” etc., can also be (but fortunately almost never is) properly spelled “forego.” Don’t ask. English is weird. But “forego” (to precede) cannot be spelled “forgo,” so there’s that.

I said that “therefore” and “therefor” were separate words, and they do have different meanings, but they’re really the same word. Spelled “therefor,” it means “for that thing, act, etc.” (“He shall supply a copy of such report … on payment of the sum of one shilling therefor,” 1885) or “for that reason” (“Tell Briggs that his ticket came safely, and that I am thankful therefor,” 1848). Spelled “therefore,” it means “in consequence of that” or “that being so” (“The Franks were the stronger, and therefore the masters,” 1845).

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