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Forgo vs. Forego:

How Appealing noted an opinion by Judge Frank Easterbrook last week, to point out (among other things) that "Judge Easterbrook does not forgo using 'forego' to mean 'to do without.'" (The full phrase in the opinion was "the insurers contend that Freedom's willingness to forego the collection of any deficiency ....")

There is indeed a common assertion that "go without" should only be written "forgo," and "go before" should only be written "forego," as in "the foregoing." ("The E in “forego” tells you it has to do with going before. It occurs mainly in the expression “foregone conclusion,” a conclusion arrived at in advance. “Forgo” means to abstain from or do without. “After finishing his steak, he decided to forgo the blueberry cheesecake.”") Bryan Garner's Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style largely echoes this. (I'm not sure about Howard Bashman's views; he may well have just been referring to the assertion, and not endorsing it.)

And indeed, it sounds logical that "foregoing" should correspond to "going before" and not "going without." But it's also logical to denounce "its" as a possessive of "it" (the rule for most possessive is to add an apostrophe and an "s" rather than just an "s"), "aren't I?" as short for "am I not?," and "himself" (shouldn't it be "hisself," by analogy to "myself," and because we're talking about his self?). Logic takes you only so far when we're talking about English, and I imagine all or nearly all other languages.

So as these examples — and many more — illustrate, it is important to look to "the will of custom, in whose power is the decision and right and standard of language." And modern search technology makes it very easy to see what the custom is. A Westlaw search for "to #forgo" & date(> 1/1/2008) yields 916 hits; a Westlaw search for "to #forego" & date(> 1/1/2008) yields 1914. (The "#" is required to prevent Westlaw for searching for both, since it otherwise recognizes them as synonyms.) Quick eyeballing of reveals that these seem to mean "to go without," which makes sense: "To forego" in the sense of "to go before" would be a pretty odd locution. Googling reveals that this isn't just legal usage; "to forego" beats "to forgo," though by a smaller margin (1.74M reported hits vs. 1.56M). So both "forego" and "forgo" are in common usage to mean "go without"; custom approves of both.

Ah, some may say, that's just a sign of how the language is going to hell in these degenerate times. But the preference for "to forego" over "to forgo" seems to have been much stronger in past decades. Limiting the search to cases before 1940 yields 2626 cases for of "to forego" and only 9 for "to forgo." Either there's some serious glitch in Westlaw (unlikely; I get the same results with Lexis), or past usage is overwhelmingly in favor of writing "to do without" as "to forego" rather than "to forgo."

So it's hard for me to see any basis for condemning the use of "to forego" in the sense of "to do without." Logic, as I mentioned, doesn't tell us much. Modern usage, including in edited prose written by generally quite literate judges and law clerks, suggests that both "to forego" and "to forgo" are acceptable. Longstanding usage, at least longstanding legal usage, suggests that if anything "to forego" is more standard (though I wouldn't condemn "to forgo" on account of this; I'd say both are proper). There's no risk that "to forego" as "to do without" will be unclear to the reader; context pretty much always dispels any possible risk of confusion.

So all we have to criticize the "forego = do without" usage is basically some people's aesthetic judgment. If you share that aesthetic judgment, then by all means use "forgo." And even if you don't share the judgment, you might still want to avoid "forego = do without" in order to satisfy the purists, on the theory that today "to forgo" is the safe bet, though perhaps it wasn't in the past (at least in legal usage). But I see no real foundation for any claim that "forego = do without" is wrong, a "mistake," or even "poor usage."

UPDATE: "Esthetic" changed to "aesthetic," following commenter Mark N., Horace, and Google. Not that there's anything wrong with "esthetic," mind you ....

andy (mail) (www):
section 7872 of the Internal Revenue Code used to deal with "foregone interest." when a person didn't charge another person interest. the Code would recharacterize the transaction in accordance with its substance. the statute would also speak of one's "foregoing" of interest.

over the course of about 5 years, the statute was cleaned up, as summarized in the Westlaw annotations:

2000 Amendments. Subsec. (f)(3). Pub.L. 106-554, § 1(a)(7) [Title III, § 319(30)], substituted “forgoing” for “foregoing”.

1998 Amendments. Subsec. (f)(2)(B). Pub.L. 105-206, § 6023(30), substituted “forgone” for “foregone”.

1996 Amendments. Subsec. (a). Pub.L. 104-188, § 1704(t)(58)(A), substituted “forgone” for “foregone”, wherever appearing in pars. (1) and (2).

Subsec. (e). Pub.L. 104-188, § 1704(t)(58)(B), substituted “forgone” for “foregone” in subsec. heading.

Subsec. (e)(2). Pub.L. 104-188, § 1704(t)(58), substituted “Forgone” for “Foregone” in par. heading and “forgone” for “foregone” in text.

---

That was just something I noticed a while back while studying how the statute evolved over time. I guess someone at Congress cared enough about the "forego vs. forgo" debate to amend the statute several times.
6.26.2009 4:26pm
Jay:
"(I'm not sure about Howard Bashman's views; he may well have just been referring to the assertion, and not endorsing it.)"

Judging from the fussy, self-important style of his blog, I doubt it. No Howard, I don't want to "click here to access [your] previous coverage," which was another one-line post from eight months back. Thanks Howard, for the link to "a post entitled ..." Also, great job linking to the lastest coverage of a speech by "Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr." or an opinion by "Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr."
6.26.2009 4:28pm
Tracy Johnson (www):
When you said "language is going to hell", my first reaction that it may be one of those Microsoft Word things that force you go use one method when both are correct. (Thus forcing a trend.) But it seems not so in this case.

But it begs another question, is MS Word forcing us to change our usage due to omnipresence of its tools?
6.26.2009 4:28pm
bobh (mail):
Forgo North Dakota.
6.26.2009 4:31pm
Pepper:
This is completely unrelated, but I thought that I would take the opportunity in this language-related post to ask a question: what happens if we have two US Supreme Court associate justices with the same last name where the reporting of opinions is concerned? That is, when it is reported that an opinion was joined by "Alito, J." or "Scalia and Alito, JJ.," what would we have if there were two associate justices named "Marshall" on the bench?
6.26.2009 4:34pm
ruuffles (mail) (www):

what happens if we have two US Supreme Court associate justices with the same last name where the reporting of opinions is concerned?

Looking at wikipedia, this doesn't appear to have actually happened. But just as a fun fact, here are justices I found to have the same last names:

Marshall, Roberts, Harlan, White.

Minnesota's SC has two current justices named Anderson so its likely to show up in their opinions.

Also as a trivia: there are at least three justices named after foods: Burger, Frankfurter, and Salmon Chase.
6.26.2009 4:43pm
Dave N (mail):
Pepper,

Heck if I know--though in the Ninth Circuit, where there are two Judge Smiths (Milan Smith of Oregan and N. Randy Smith of Idaho), the Court identifies them as "M. Smith" and "N.R. Smith."

This week, in Berger v. City of Seattle, both sat on the en banc panel. The Court identified a "Partial Concurrence and Partial Dissent by Judge N.R. Smith." I wasn't confused in the least.

If you note Supreme Court practice, it notes the authors of opinions by the first initial of the last name. However, since there are three justices with last names beginning with "S" (which obviously won't change when Judge Sotomayor replaces Justice Souter), the first initial is used as well, so those authors are identified as "JS", "AS", and "DS". I have no idea what the Court would do if Judge Sotomayor's first name was Judith or Andrea.

To the topic at hand, I have always used "forego." As bobh notes, "forgo" looks too much like the name of that medium-sized city in North Dakota.
6.26.2009 4:50pm
ruuffles (mail) (www):
OK Minnesota has a strange system where each joining justice joins separately, but you can see the distinct way

ANDERSON, Paul H., Justice

is written out as opposed to

PAGE, Justice

Using this for SCOTUS it might be

Marshall, John, and Marshall, Thurgood, JJ.
6.26.2009 4:50pm
Alan Gunn (mail):
It's true enough that logic doesn't get you very far in making judgments about usage. Pointing to "its" as a failure of logic seems wrong to me, though, as pronouns generally don't us an apostrophe to form possessives. We seldom encounter "hi's," "her's," "our's," or their's," at least in edited prose, so why should we expect to see "it's" as a possessive form? (One can use "one's," to be sure, but it isn't necessary.)

Shaw wanted to do away with apostrophes. I wish his views had prevailed.
6.26.2009 4:51pm
ruuffles (mail) (www):
Here is the Minnesota link

opinion

For initials, the 9th uses 3 for some judges, but its not clear if its only for those that have a middle

9th
6.26.2009 4:53pm
Dave N (mail):
Oregon not Oregan.

More importantly, I was intending to link to the Supreme Court's website to show how the Court identifies the authors of opinions.
6.26.2009 4:54pm
Mark N. (www):

basically some people's esthetic judgment

I don't have strong preferences on "forego", but my aesthetic judgment on this matter certainly differs from that of Prof. Volokh.
6.26.2009 5:10pm
cirby (mail):
Who would have expected such a farrago over such a simple word?
6.26.2009 5:10pm
adam Scales:
I have to admit that Eugene assault on prescriptivism is wearing me down. However, I'd like to add to something he's written before.

EV makes the point that a good guide to these emerging usage questions is to consider the reader. If the reader is likely to think you're an idiot for using "forego" to mean, "to do without", then that's a good guide to decision. As someone who reads a lot of student legal writing, what bothers me is the nagging sense that people often have no idea that there is anything controversial in the (possibly) incorrect use to which they've put a word.

EV posted a while back about "disinterested" vs. "uninterested". It's true that I prefer to use the former term solely to express a lack of bias, while EV points out that the two have been used synonymously for much longer than I would have imagined.

Ok, so I may have to live with this one (among many others). My problem is that many people who will "misuse" the word "disinterested" will have no idea that they are on uncertain linguistic ground at all. Likewise, the apparently ineradicable use of the word "they" to describe individuals ("Somebody robbed the store. They were really tall") also lends itself to an indifference regarding competing (I will refrain fro saying "correct") usages. After all, one might use "they" artfully here, to conceal identity. But, this use will be lost through verbal abuse...

My point is that I would be more comfortable with what I'll call mindful descriptivism. I still might not like it, but life goes on. What we appear to have rampant is unmindful descriptivism, and one result is the loss of words whose meaning shades into others. Why should we lose out on the nice distinction between disinterested and uninterested because many people do not even imagine there is a difference?
6.26.2009 5:23pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
adam Scales: Ah, yes... but this reader thinks most people don't spell as well as he. He (i.e., me) also thinks that 'forgo' is moronic beyond believe, kiddy spelling or something coming from a vowel-deprived dialect. To me, it simply looks like bad spelling.

I know that I've never, before the cite at Bashman, noticed 'forgo' in a text. If I came across it, I'm sure I assumed it was a typo.

So, with this post, I'll dial back the 'Here's your sign' motor and just regret that, once again, that which I prefer is not mandatory.
6.26.2009 5:36pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
* belief
6.26.2009 5:37pm
Jonathan F.:
. . . an indifference regarding competing (I will refrain fro saying "correct") usages.
Likewise, while "fro" certainly means "from," I would refrain from using it where I expected readers would simply think I had mistyped the latter word to omit the final letter.
6.26.2009 5:44pm
Anderson (mail):
Announcing my new publication!

The Libertarian Grammar &Usage Handbook.
6.26.2009 5:46pm
Jonathan F.:
Um, oops -- I was trying to figure out which indicator of sarcasm (like </sarcasm>) to use when I accidentally hit Post.
6.26.2009 5:47pm
David McCourt (mail):
"But it begs another question ...."

Well, er, no. But it may raise another question.
6.26.2009 6:09pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
John Burgess: Well, the Oxford English Dictionary entry for "forgo" gives quotes with that spelling from Shakespeare, Milton, and Matthew Arnold, among others. And that of course is just a sampling of the users. So I don't know whether "moronic beyond belief" quite describes the usage.
6.26.2009 6:16pm
BABH:
Shakespeare and Milton are hardly famous for consistent and accurate spelling. One could almost say that there was no such thing as accurate spelling before 1755 (Johnson's Dictionary).

I like to think of myself as linguistically aware, but I had never noticed a forgo/forego controversy. "Forego" seems as obviously correct to me as "forgo" is obviously incorrect. Now I know not to be a dick about it when editing someone else's writing.
6.26.2009 6:33pm
Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk (www):
David McCourt:

You indicate that "beg" cannot be used in the sense of raising another question. Do you have some support for this position?

It seems reasonable enough to use "beg" in this fashion. Merriam-Webster provides the following definition of the phrase:
— beg the question
1 : to pass over or ignore a question by assuming it to be established or settled
2 : to elicit a question logically as a reaction or response (the quarterback's injury begs the question of who will start in his place)
And one certainly encounters the the second use of "beg" often enough.
6.26.2009 6:37pm
Stash:
Does if follow that "forgo" may also be used to mean "to go before"? In other words, if "forego" may be used in place of "forgo," may "forgo" be used in place of "forego"? Is a "forgone conclusion" as correct as "foregone conclusion"? I do not know.
6.26.2009 6:45pm
john dickinson (mail):

My point is that I would be more comfortable with what I'll call mindful descriptivism. I still might not like it, but life goes on. What we appear to have rampant is unmindful descriptivism, and one result is the loss of words whose meaning shades into others. Why should we lose out on the nice distinction between disinterested and uninterested because many people do not even imagine there is a difference?


It's true that the history and evolution of language (especially English) tends towards destroying (sometimes useful) distinctions between words. But there's a trade-off, as our language has tended to become more portable and more modal -- generally able to express much more complex concepts, and to wider audiences. While obviously somewhat controversial, in some academic circles, this process has been considered an extremely good thing. Some have gone as far as to say that the complex and abstract thought that our modern world is based on was greatly facilitated -- or even enabled -- by the rapid increase in flexibility and decrease in rigidity of language that accompanied modernity. By (very imperfect) analogy, it has been compared to the change from Roman Numerals to the decimal system, or more discreetly to the evolution of programming languages, from the simple and limited to the complex and powerful, to the simple but powerful.

Now I'm not sure exactly where I stand on all of those points -- I find the prospect intriguing, but some of its proponents can be frustratingly dogmatic, and they regularly overstate their case. But at the very least, I think there's a frequently overlooked normative side to the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate that rests more on empirical investigation than the philosophy of language: in the long-run, will the world be better off if language is carefully regulated, or will it be better off if language is largely left alone? Generally, given his political proclivities, it doesn't surprise me that EV seems to favor the position that he does.

In this case, however, the forgo/forego debate is definitely unusual, in that the trend seems to be toward creating rather than destroying a distinction. That is really very rare in the absence of very specific reasons, like an emerging need stemming from a major cultural change or advance in technology, or the involvement of a major player (e.g., a major dictionary, textbook, or even best-seller; or some kind of government intervention). So anyway, I'd be curious to see when and why this distinction gained popularity.
6.26.2009 6:47pm
Paludicola (mail) (www):
The online etymological dictionary, which might not be definitive, claims that, "forego," comes from Old English for- (a prefix) 'away' and gan 'go'. If this is accurate, then the insistence that, "forego," should be restricted to uses of going before something is, not unlike many arcane prescriptions, not correct, except perhaps as a reänalysis of the component morphemes to be fore+go.

I, curiously, indulge a strange innovation wherein, "forego," in the past tense is, "forwent."
6.26.2009 6:54pm
CDR D (mail):
>>Now I know not to be a dick about it....



<<



Well, that's good. We don't want to have this discussion devolve into "foreskins".... ;)
6.26.2009 6:57pm
Ralphe (mail) (www):
In the future when I use either terms I will only use forgo to mean do without and forego and its variants such as foregone and foretaste to mean before the present. Thank you for the pointer and I am glad I will forever more be consistent. Ooops! No forever is fine because how else could I say it? It's that e in ever. How can we get around that? Perhaps foever?
6.26.2009 7:12pm
Esth:
I think "logic" isn't what's important here. The goal is to not confuse the reader.

We have two different ideas that can be conveyed: (1) to go before; and (2) to go without. To me, it is easier for readers if we have separate words for each of those meanings.

Isn't it very confusing to have the same English word mean two radically different things?? I think so. So let's break it up. Forego means go before and Forgo means go without.

Not logic, just good sense. And being mindful of the reader.
6.26.2009 7:36pm
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
Eugene's "Google vote" approach to usage actually suggests that technology may ultimately make spelling more standard, and spelling prescriptivism more justifiable, over time. After all, checking and correcting spelling is much easier than it used to be. At one time, checking spelling likely required fetching a dictionary (possibly from another room--if one was even available), and repeatedly guessing spellings until hitting the correct one. Today, search and spell-check tools usually reduce that effort to a couple of mouse-clicks. And future context-sensitive spell-checkers may well make the process completely automatic.

Moreover, spelling errors used to be relatively harmless--apart from a bit of an embarrassment to the writer--in the pre-digital era. Today, though, a misspelling may cause a highly relevant text to fail to appear on an Internet or database search. That's a practical reason for writers to improve--and to admonish each other to improve--their spelling.
6.26.2009 7:53pm
John Rosenberg (mail) (www):
As someone who pragmatically leans toward prescriptivism (why offend people who believe there is a right and wrong way to say some things when others don’t [and even they don’t think the “correct” way is wrong], don’t know, or don’t care?), I will forgo (or forego) taking sides on the usage question Eugene addresses.

But, since his is a post about usage, I will point out that the punctuation of the following paragraph will (or at least should) draw some clucks from grammar mavens (links omitted):
There is indeed a common assertion that "go without" should only be written "forgo," and "go before" should only be written "forego," as in "the foregoing." ("The E in “forego” tells you it has to do with going before. It occurs mainly in the expression “foregone conclusion,” a conclusion arrived at in advance. “Forgo” means to abstain from or do without. “After finishing his steak, he decided to forgo the blueberry cheesecake.”") Bryan Garner's Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style largely echoes this. (I'm not sure about Howard Bashman's views; he may well have just been referring to the assertion, and not endorsing it.)
In the sentences quoted inside the parentheses, “forego,” “foregone conclusion,” “Forgo,” and the last sentence quoted -- “After finishing his steak, he decided to forgo the blueberry cheesecake” -- should be enclosed with single quotation marks. That’s because in American English quotes within quotes use single quotation marks.
6.26.2009 8:30pm
PeterWimsey (mail):
I find the forgo/forego distinction logical and I have pretty much always used it...for some reason it seems to come up a lot in things I write. So I think it's worth keeping.

I believe it is the same distinction we have in forbear and forebear.

I'm not sure about forbid or forsake, although in both cases there isn't a "fore" variation, AFAICT.
6.26.2009 11:10pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Eugene: Understood. My point--which I guess I failed to make--was that my umbrage was just as good as anyone else's in preferring one form over the other.

It's a fact, however, that this post's use of 'forgo' was the first I have ever come across in 60 years of reading. The new always looks strange; the strange usually looks 'wrong'.
6.26.2009 11:19pm
Henry679 (mail):
So it is Forego in a romp.

Well, there is precedent for it.

6.26.2009 11:35pm
Henry679 (mail):
Damn, were did my link go?
6.26.2009 11:35pm
John Rosenberg (mail) (www):
One of the reasons I prefer "forego" is to "forgo" is grammatically irrelevant: it reminds me of the choice between "foreword" and "forward" for the preface-like introduction to a book, where "foreword" is clearly the correct and preferred choice.
6.27.2009 2:02am
Mark C.:
"There's no risk that 'to forego' as 'to do without' will be unclear to the reader; context pretty much always dispels any possible risk of confusion."

If that were true, perhaps I would not be a stickler on the forgo/forego distinction. However, I have run across examples in the past where the use of "forego" to mean "do without" created needless confusion. So I join with those who prefer to maintain the distinction. Here is an example that might produce confusion: "Eugene decided to forego Sasha on the trip." Does that mean Eugene decided to go on the trip without Sasha, or did Eugene decide to go on the trip before Sasha (knowing that he would catch up later)?

At a minimum, to address Stash's question, I do not think the two words are entirely interchangeable. To me, using "forgo" to mean "go before" is clearly wrong, whether or not one wishes to maintain the distinction in the context of meaning "do without." And I would bet that Westlaw or Google usage checks would find exceedingly few times where edited prose used "forgo" to mean "go before." Unfortunately, if using "forego" is always correct while using "forgo" can sometimes be wrong, that will just persuade many people to always use "forego" so they don't have to worry about it.
6.27.2009 10:59am
Dave N (mail):
I will forego further comment.
6.27.2009 2:44pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Mark C.: What sort of Martian would say "Eugene decided to forego Sasha on the trip" to mean "go on the trip before Sasha"? Have you ever heard or seen the word "forego" in that sense used in that context? (Even in the other sense it would be mighty weird, it seems to me.)
6.27.2009 3:37pm
Stash:
Mark C.:


Unfortunately, if using "forego" is always correct while using "forgo" can sometimes be wrong, that will just persuade many people to always use "forego" so they don't have to worry about it.


This is an excellent point. I had actually been thinking that if interchangeability of the terms is accepted the logical result would be to accept both spellings for both meanings. But as my half-rhetorical question attempted to imply, there seems to be greater resistance to the use of "forgo" to mean "forego" than to the opposite.

Dave N.:

I would be sorry to see no more comments from you. But I am hoping your bleak prediction turns out to be false.

Professor Volokh has managed to moderate my instinctive prescriptivism to some degree, but I continue to believe that careful usage requires the awareness of prescriptive contentions. I would further argue that at least in formal writing, some perhaps descriptively correct usages can cause the reader to conclude that the writer suffers from a degree of ignorance or absence of educational background. This, at least, is my current rationale or rationalization--though I do not know if there is a distinction between these terms among strong descriptivists.

I think Easterbrook's "error" is minimal and not necessarily rooted in ignorance of a possible distinction. This could just as easily be a typographical error as a conscious word choice. In either case, I doubt very much that it indicates a fierce belief in the interchangeability of the terms. Most people, including me, depend on "spell check" to do too much of their proofreading. Descriptivism will adopt these oversights regardless of the writer's intent.
6.27.2009 6:09pm

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