The Grammarphobia Blog

Look ahead … or look forward?

Q: The words “forward” and “ahead” mean similar things, but “looking forward” to something seems to be more enthusiastic than “looking ahead” to it. Can you explain?

A: You’re right. You wouldn’t say, “I look ahead to our date tomorrow night.” To “look ahead” is neutral, but to “look forward” implies eagerness.

With verbs that indicate position or motion, the adverbs “forward” and “ahead” are used more or less interchangeably: “face forward”/“face ahead,” “walk forward”/“walk ahead,” “go forward”/“go ahead,” “move forward”/“move ahead,” and so on.

But with the verb “look,” when it means to anticipate something in the future, “forward” and “ahead” aren’t normally interchangeable.

To “look ahead” is “to think of and decide about the future,” according to Cambridge Dictionaries online, but to “look forward (to something)” is to “to feel pleasure because an event or activity is going to happen.”

This wasn’t always the case. In the anticipating sense, the phrasal verb “look forward” once meant simply to await or consider future events. But much later, “look forward” developed a more particular meaning—to anticipate eagerly. An element of pleasurable expectation entered the picture.

Here’s how and when all this happened.

The phrasal verb “look forward” was first recorded, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in a 16th-century religious commentary referring to omens that are expected to come true:

“When Abel slewe his sacrifices … he looked forward too the thing yt was signified.” (From A Postill, or Exposition of the Gospels, Arthur Golding’s 1569 translation of a Latin work by the Danish Lutheran theologian Neils Hemmingsen.)

Similarly, this Shakespearian citation in the OED from the early 17th century uses “look forward” to mean merely “expect”: “Looke forward on the iournie you shall go.” (From Measure for Measure, first performed in 1604).

And this example is from the following century: “One, who can look forwarder than the Nine Days of Wonder.” (From Samuel Richardson’s 1741 novel Pamela; a “nine days’ wonder” means a short-lived sensation.)

The dictionary defines those uses of “look forward” as “to anticipate, expect, consider (an event in) the future.”

But an additional sense, “to await eagerly,” appeared in the late 18th century, as in these OED examples:

“Banish your fears, and let us look forward, my love.” (From Samuel Foote’s stage comedy The Devil Upon Two Sticks, written sometime before 1777.)

“They looked forward to the time when firmness and perseverance would force their enemies to grant honourable terms.” (From William Lothian’s The History of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, 1780.)

In the decades to come, the sense of eagerness in “looking forward” became more firmly established, as you can see from these 19th-century OED examples:

“His visit to the hall was looked forward to with interest.” (Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Venetia, 1837.)

“They … looked forward to the speedy expulsion of the intruders.” (The History of British India, 1848, edited by Horace Hayman Wilson.)

“The way in which we looked forward for letters from our bride and bridegroom.” (William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Adventures of Philip, 1862.)

“We were looking forward to a merry time.” (The London magazine Temple Bar, November 1892.)

Perhaps it’s no surprise that in the early 19th century, as “look forward” became increasingly optimistic, the more neutral “look ahead” came into use. English speakers began using the two phrasal verbs—“look forward” and “look ahead”—for different purposes.

The OED’s earliest use of “look ahead” in the sense “to anticipate, consider, or plan for the future” was recorded in a British newspaper:

“That ambition must be short-sighted, indeed, which did not look ahead beyond two, or even six, years.” (The Daily National Intelligencer, May 25, 1820.)

And when used with “to,” the dictionary says, “look ahead” means “to await, consider or plan for a particular future event.” This example is from a 19th-century American novel:

“You’ve got to look ahead to the time when she regrets the lack of husband and children.” (Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly, by Hamlin Garland, 1895.) The expression is used here to anticipate a lost opportunity and an empty life.

Jumping ahead to our own time, the OED gives this example: “Schuster and Finkelstein … seem to be looking ahead to what is essentially a post-tenure academic world dominated by the contingent academic workforce.” (The New York Review of Books, Jan. 13, 2011.)

Certainly, “looking forward” would give the wrong impression in that sentence, since the authors are predicting a decline in teaching standards. Generally, “looking ahead” tends to be used in a neutral or negative way, while “looking forward” is positive.

However, we should mention that in the corporate world, “looking forward” is used neutrally. In business and management usage, Oxford says, “looking forward” merely means “in or for the future” or “looking ahead” or “starting from now.”

Here’s one OED example: “Looking forward, earnings before interest depreciation and amortisation are growing at 25pc a year and are expected to hit £7.2 billion by 2002.” (The Daily Telegraph, March 8, 2001.)

In corporate language, “looking forward” is often used in much the same sense as “going forward” and “moving forward.”

But getting back to normal usage, most people imply eagerness when they say they’re “looking forward” to something. We can’t resist citing this OED example, from Owen John’s 1970 novel The Diamond Dress, because it mentions one of our favorite dishes:

“I’d been looking forward to some delicious spaghetti alla carbonara and a bottle of Frascati.”

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