Editor at Large

Forgo or Forego?

I had what the Spanish call a “lapsus” today (no, not a lapsus freudiano) and completely forgot how to spell a certain word.

I was writing an e-mail to my grandmother, meaning to tell her that I would gladly give up hypothetical thing A for hypothetical thing B. Though I chose the right word, I could not remember how to spell it:
I’m happy to forgo the trip…?
I’m happy to forego the trip…?

Even though it’s my job to correct other people’s English mistakes, I still get uncertain when I write. I’ve said before that the one word I’m always unsure of is misspelling itself—are there two esses or three? In the case above, I didn’t know the etymology of the word. Because I did not know what that first fore was, um, for, I could not be sure of how to spell it. Spellcheck doesn’t help with this one: both “forgo” and “forego” are real English words. But only one means to go without, as I meant to say in my letter. The trouble is that in English you can understand the meaning of a word without explicit knowledge of its component parts, just as in German.

Strangely enough, I’m completely sure how to spell a similar word, one in which the prefix is much more obvious: the foregoing, or what went before. Forethought, forehead, forecast…you can see that Old English fore- hard at work to change the meaning of these words to something primary, something first.

But what about forever, forlorn, forsaken? What’s that for- doing in these words? More importantly, what exactly does it mean? I decided to go with today, a service which borrows heavily from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary:


a prefix meaning “away,” “off,” “to the uttermost,” “extremely,” “wrongly,” or imparting a negative or privative force, occurring in verbs and nouns formed from verbs of Old or Middle English origin, many of which are now obsolete or archaic: forbid; forbear; forswear; forbearance.

[Origin: ME, OE; cf. G ver-, Gk peri-, L per-]

Not exactly a mnemonic, is it? This is tricky stuff: if you Ask Oxford about forego, the next web page you see will offer two links: one for forego and one for forgo. Maybe I’m not the only one who’s had trouble making the distinction.

But no more! From now, as long as I remember that both words exist as legitimate spellings in the English language, I’ve got a foolproof way to tell which one means to go without:

process of elimination.

Occam’s razor. Were you expecting the OED?

Fore goes with before. Which means that forego implies something preceding: something that goes before.

I think we can forgo any further explanation. Don’t you?

10 replies on “Forgo or Forego?”

The for- in “forgo” is akin to the intensifying sense of completion that ver- has in various German words. Vergangenheit, verstehen, Verlangen, verbieten…. Actually, the last one might help to reinforce your mnemonic, since it has an obvious English analogue that hardly anyone would misspell.

Funny you should mention verbieten, skg046–it’s the one that always slips my mind in German (I always want to say vor-)! Your definition of for- as an intensifier is much easier to remember than the definition given in Random House. Thanks for that.

After checking with various online dictionaries, I’m confident that forgo and forego are simply variants. And since English is such a consistent and systematic language, I think we can afford to forego overwrought distinctions between the two and simply go with whatever convention we’re familiar with. And yes, I ended with a preposition. Because I’ve been teaching ESL all day and now all I want to do is break rules.

Hi Daniel, thanks for your comment. I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with you on your variance point: while forego is a listed variant of forgo, the reverse is not true. You could say that the small difference in spelling might mean that the two will one day converge into one word with both meanings, but that clearly hasn’t happened yet since they are not interchangeable. Which is why I’ll be using forgo when I’m giving up something, and forego when it’s just coming first.

And yes, that sentence started with which. Rules are relative. Please do keep me posted if you use any of my entries in your lesson plans!

Thanks for this post. I’ve been searching the web for an answer. Spelling is usually a foregone conclusion for me, but this time I was stumped.

Thank you for the clarification, everybody. I ALWAYS forget…I’m still not sure if I should use “forego” in the sense of “forgoing the trip” though.

Oops, sorry, I meant “foregoing the trip.” See what you’ve started? 😀

Sarah ricesays:

Foregone conclusion explains it toe. Forego means go before leaving forgo
To mean something given up.

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