The Grammarphobia Blog

Forewarning signs

Q: I’ve always been confused about the difference between “forewarn” and “warn.” Aren’t you warning someone either way? When do you use one over the other?

A: I think “forewarn” and “warn” mean about the same thing. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines “forewarn” as to warn in advance. It defines “warn” as to make aware in advance of actual or potential harm, danger, or evil. If you see a significant difference between the two meanings, you have better eyes than I.

You could justify “forewarn” if you really are warning someone of some danger way, way ahead of time. Otherwise, I think the term “forewarn” appears mostly as part of the old expression “forewarned is forearmed.” Also, writers may like “forewarn” because it has a sense of menace about it. It’s spooky.

Both “warn” and “forewarn” are very old words. The earliest reference to “warn” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from around 1000 while the earliest “forewarn” citation dates from 1330. I like this quotation from a 16th-century translation of the Aeneid: “The Harpye Celaeno Forwarns much mischiefe too coom.”

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