The Grammarphobia Blog

Can an outcome be foregone?

Q: Is it proper to use “foregone” like this: “the outcomes are foregone”? I know the phrase “foregone conclusion” is common, but that doesn’t seem quite the same.

A: Our answer: “Why not?”

As we’ll explain below, people today don’t routinely use “foregone” to modify nouns other than “conclusion.” But nobody would misinterpret the phrase “foregone outcome,” so we see no reason to avoid it.

We’ve written posts about “forego” (to precede or go before) and “forgo” (to do without) on our blog, most recently in 2014. And as we said, the past participles of those verbs—“foregone” and “forgone”—aren’t used much today.

However, the participial adjective “foregone” is still familiar, and we have Shakespeare to thank for it.

He’s credited with coining not only “foregone” but the expression “foregone conclusion,” which means an inevitable result or an opinion already formed. Today, “foregone” in the sense of predictable or predetermined is seldom used apart from this phrase.

Shakespeare was also the first to record “foregone” in a much lesser-known sense: previous or in the past.

The first appearances of “foregone” in each of its two senses are difficult to pin down, since most of Shakespeare’s works were composed several years before they were published.

But it’s likely that he first used “foregone” in referring to times gone by. The Oxford English Dictionary says this sense of the adjective means “that has gone before or gone by; (of time) past.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for this sense is from Sonnet 30, the familiar poem that begins “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past.”

The poem, probably written sometime between 1595 and 1600, includes the line “Then can I greeue at greeuances fore-gon”—that is, “grieve at grievances foregone,” or past sorrows.

In subsequent OED examples, the adjective appears in phrases like “foregone ills” (past sufferings, 1656), “foregone authority of law” (legal precedent, 1794), “the foregone meal” (a reference to leftovers, 1824), and “lives foregone” (the dead, 1870).

Though standard dictionaries still include this meaning of “foregone,” at least one, Oxford Dictionaries Online, labels it archaic.

The other sense of “foregone”—preconceived or predictable—is also seldom used, except with “conclusion.”  The OED’s first example of “foregone conclusion” is from Othello, believed to have been written around 1603.

Shakespeare uses the expression at a dramatic moment in the play. The scheming Iago tells Othello that he’s heard Cassio, a trusted lieutenant, talking in his sleep about Desdemona, Othello’s wife: “In sleep I heard him say, ‘Sweet Desdemona, / Let us be wary, let us hide our loves! … Cursèd fate that gave thee to the Moor!’ ”

When the credulous Othello cries, “O monstrous! Monstrous!” Iago sees that he has achieved his end, and he demurs: “Nay, this was but his dream.” Othello replies, “But this denoted a fore-gone conclusion.”

As the OED says, Shakespeare’s use of “foregone conclusion” has been “variously interpreted by commentators.” The noun “conclusion” has had a variety of meanings over time: a result, experiment, arrangement, or agreement. So Othello may have meant that Cassio’s dream referred to an already accomplished adultery.

The original use is still being debated, but the OED says that today “foregone conclusion” is used for (1) “a decision or opinion already formed before the case is argued or the full evidence known” and (2) “a result or upshot that might have been foreseen as inevitable.”

“Foregone” is occasionally seen modifying words other than “conclusion,” as in this example from the Daily Beast, March 14, 2014: “In his home state, Brian Sandoval is a foregone lock to be reelected governor.” We’ve also found examples of “foregone result” and “foregone outcome.”

Sometimes the word is even used alone, to mean the same thing but in an elliptical manner. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language offers this usage note:

“The word foregone is occasionally used by itself as a truncation of the phrase a foregone conclusion, as in It is by no means foregone that the team will relocate to Baltimore next season. But the usage has not gained broad acceptance.”

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