Etymology Usage

When “for ever” isn’t forever

Q: I seem to recall reading somewhere that “forever” means continually and “for ever” means eternally. I checked my dictionary and it only has the one-word version. Is there really a difference or is the one-word version enough for both senses?

A: In American English, the one-word version is the only version for the adverb meaning continually, incessantly, or eternally.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and all the other standard US dictionaries we checked agree on this.

In British English, the situation isn’t quite so simple.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the two-word version can mean either eternally, continually, or incessantly, but it has a half-dozen citations, beginning as far back as the 17th century, for the one-word version used in both senses.

The original 1926 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage doesn’t mention the issue, but the 1965 second edition insists on the two-word version.

But, wait, the latest Fowler’s (the revised third edition) says the one-word version means continually or persistently and the two-worder means eternally—except in the US, where one word can do for all those senses.

The lexicographers at standard British dictionaries, however, don’t generally buy that arbitrary approach.

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and the other British dictionaries we checked list “forever” and “for ever” for all senses in their British editions. And the one-word version is listed first.

In other words, the British seem to be coming around to the American usage here.

In fact, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says “the solidified version has become standard in both AmE and BrE, and the two-word version is best described as archaic.”

The two-word version, according to OED citations, is by far the oldest, first showing up around 1300 in Cursor Mundi, a Middle English poem: “This folk … that suld vs serue for euer and ai” (“This folk … that should us serve for ever and always”).

The one-word version first appeared in a 1670 satire by John Eachard that expressed “honest and hearty wishes that the best of our Clergy might forever continue as they are.”

By the 1800s, however, sticklers were complaining about the one-word version. We’ll end with an excerpt from “Forever,” a poem by Charles Stuart Calverley, one of the 19th-century complainers:

Forever; ’tis a single word!
Our rude forefathers deem’d it two:
Can you imagine so absurd
A view?

Forever! What abysms of woe
The word reveals, what frenzy, what
Despair! For ever (printed so)
Did not.

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