The Grammarphobia Blog

A foregone conclusion

Q: Here’s a quickie query. What’s the past tense of “forego”?

A: The past tense of “forego” is “forewent.” But do you mean “forego” or “forgo”?

These are two different verbs. Traditionally, “forego” means to precede, while “forgo” means to do without.

However, some dictionaries now list “forego” as an alternate or variant spelling of “forgo,” and “forgo” as an alternate or variant spelling of “forego.” Yikes!

Life is complicated enough, so we’ll stick to the traditional spellings.

The two verbs have separate histories dating back to Anglo-Saxon days. And as Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) puts it, “their meanings are so different that it’s worth preserving the distinction.”

We’ll return to the history of these verbs later, but first let’s get back to your question. Here’s the quickie answer, with the traditional spellings:

● “forego” (to go before): past tense, “forewent”; past participle, “foregone.”

● “forgo” (to do without): past tense, “forwent”; past participle, “forgone.”

Obviously, the past tenses aren’t exactly household words. We’d forgo using either one, and go with something like “preceded” or “went before” for the first verb and “did without” or “abstained” for the second.

The past participles aren’t seen much either, except for the first one, “foregone.” It’s  used adjectivally in the familiar expression “foregone conclusion,” meaning an inevitable result or a conclusion formed in advance.

(The OED‘s earliest example of “foregone conclusion” is from Shakespeare’s Othello (circa 1603): “But this denoted a fore-gone conclusion.”)

Now, on to the history of “forego” and “forgo.”

Both appeared in Old English religious writing: “forego” in The Vespasian Psalter (circa 825) and “forgo” in The Lindisfarne Gospels (c. 950), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Old English, the OED says, “forego” was written as foregán, a combination of the prefix “fore-” and the verb gán (go), while “forgo” was forgán, the prefix “for-” plus gán.

The two prefixes are entirely different: “fore-” means “before” or “in front,” while “for-” (a prefix that’s now obsolete) implies a sense of “off” or “away.” (This is the same prefix that survives in “forlorn,” “forget,” “forbid,” and “forbear.”)

The word “forego” has meant to precede since its early days, but “forgo” has had a few twists and turns before arriving at its modern meaning of to do without.

When “forgo” appeared in The Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript from an English monastery, it meant “to go away, go past, pass away,” according to the OED.

Over the next few centuries, it came to mean to go by, pass over, leave alone, neglect, overlook, avoid, overreach, forsake, and deceive, but all those senses are now considered obsolete, archaic, or rare.

In the 1100s, according to Oxford, “forgo” (sometimes spelled “forgoo” or “forgoe”) took on its modern meaning of “to abstain from, go without, deny to oneself,” and so on.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the new usage is from The Cotton Homilies (a manuscript from sometime before 1175), but we’ll skip ahead to this exchange between Achilles and Hector in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1609):

Achilles: Look, Hector, how the sun begins to set; / How ugly night comes breathing at his heels: / Even with the vail and darking of the sun, / To close the day up, Hector’s life is done.

Hector: I am unarm’d; forgoe this vantage, Greek.

Achilles: Strike, fellows, strike; this is the man I seek.

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