Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

One letter can make all the difference. It’s a notion that has come up time and time again in this Grammar 101 series. You may have also noticed that the English language is hardly stagnant and it continues to change and evolve with the times. A good example of this is how we have come to use the words “forgo” and “forego.” Are they interchangeable? The answer is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no.

Let’s start with some basic definitions. To forgo something is to choose voluntarily to go without that something. The motivation behind this choice can be just about anything. The main thing here is that you have the opportunity to get something, but you’re opting out of receiving it.

Taking an example out of my own life, deciding to run my own freelance writing business means that I am also choosing to forgo paid vacation time, paid sick days, and the other benefits of having a more traditional 9-to-5 office job. The context of forgoing something has to be such that the thing being declined is generally pleasant and desirable. You don’t “forgo” bad service at a restaurant, but you might choose to “forgo” dessert.

If you were to look up the original meaning behind the word forego (with an “e”), then you’d learn that it means to precede or to go before. You can discern this definition by breaking down the word into its two main parts: “fore” (as in “before”) and “go.” This is generally used in more of a figurative rather than a literal sense. Her reputation foregoes her.

It’s also from this construction that we get the term “foregone conclusion,” meaning a conclusion that has already been determined before the actual events take place. Many people felt that seeing Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush as the final candidates for US President was a foregone conclusion. Of course, based on current polls, that is hardly the case.

To this end, the words “forgo” and “forego” (with past tense “forwent” and “forewent”) are not necessarily interchangeable, because they have different meanings… except they don’t.

Increasingly in modern usage, you’ll find that “forego” is being listed as a variant spelling of “forgo” rather than having its own separate, original definition. Given this, outside of talking about a foregone conclusion, it might be in your best interest to forgo using the word “forego” altogether.

Is there a topic you’d like to see explored in a future Grammar 101 post?