Forgo vs. Forego

By Mark Nichol

What’s the difference between forgo and forego? It’s a foregone conclusion that there’ll be some confusion, but I’ll forgo further digression to get to the discussion.

To forgo is to do without, or relinquish: “He will forgo the pleasure of her company”; “I’ll forgo the formality of requiring a co-signer.” The present participle is forgoing (“She is forgoing the procedure”), the past-tense form can be forwent (“She forwent the procedure”) or forgone (“She had forgone the procedure”), and one who forgoes is a forgoer. Only the basic verb form, however, is common.

To forego, by contrast, is to go before, to precede. Forego is much less common in usage than forgo, and it generally has a figurative sense, often used in such statements as “Her reputation will forego her” or “Her reputation foregoes her,” meaning that others will have heard about the subject before they meet her.

However, although the past-tense form forewent is rare, the form foregone, and the present participle foregoing are more common than the root word. A phrase I used in the first paragraph, “foregone conclusion,” is applied frequently to indicate that something is implicitly understood to be true; foregoing refers to something that has previously been encountered, as a passage in a document: “The foregoing statement should not be construed as an endorsement.”

To maintain the distinction between the words forgo and forego in your mind, remember these basics: Use forgo or forgoing in the sense of “doing without”; past-tense usage is rare. And though use of forego is unlikely, foregone and foregoing are common terms for reference to something already done.

Or, most simply, think of -fore in before to remind yourself that forego and its variants refer to sequence and that forgo resembles forget, which is often the reason something is left undone.

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9 Responses to “Forgo vs. Forego”

  • Stephen

    Oh! I knew that there were two different meanings, but I never realised until now that the words were spelled differently. I’d been spelling both as “forego”. Thanks!

  • R. E. Hunter

    Wow, I had this all wrong. I had never heard “forgo”, and always used “forego” to mean “do without”. Thanks for clarifying this.

  • John White

    Your North Dakota readers are dismayed that you omitted “fargo.”

  • Gordon Havens

    Mark,

    In a future article, would you please compare and contrast superfluous versus redundant? Always had trouble wrapping my head around the distinctions. Thank you.

  • Dan

    Forego is a variant of forgo. So “forego” can be used for either meaning.

  • Castor P. Johns

    This is completely erroneous. Forego is correct. Forgo is just a modern corruption.

  • Steve

    @Dan, @Castor: You’ll probably crucify me for this, but I wound up here because spellcheck choked on “forego,” but accepted “forgo” without a peep. I also thought “forego” proper, but this explanation is logical- ergo, of course, most likely wrong!

    In any case, I’m going with FOR-get vs. be-FORE henceforth.

    Thanks, Mark, for this post- at least I can lay the blame elsewhere if my usage is incorrect!

  • Dee Longenbaugh

    I agree with those who say forgo is a modern misspelling of forego.

  • Douglas Rathbun

    Depends on the meaning. If the intended meaning is “abstain,” forgo is proper, derived from Old English forgan. If the intended meaning is “go before,” forego is proper, based on Old English foregan, and please note that in OE the e was pronounced (silent e arrived between the 14th and 16th centuries, with the Great Vowel Shift), so it’s not the case in OE that forgan and foregan would have been pronounced the same, as is the case with forgo and forego. The argument that “forgo” is recent is belied with its presence in writing and print well before 1500 (the word was particularly prominent in the 1560s), though an increase in confusing the two may have increased recently as people use forego in ways other than the idiomatic (from Shakespeare’s Othello) “foregone conclusion,” and the increase in the last century of use of the past tense of forgo employing the root of the OE verb wendan. One can have “opinions” whether forgo is a recent misspelling or corruption, but etymology dictionaries and n-gram viewers can provide facts that help to inform what the historical meanings have been. What is proper today, if one tends toward the descriptivist over the prescriptivist, depends on which is likelier to be understood or misunderstood.

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