Even though they sound the same and are only differentiated by one tiny letter, forego and forgo have entirely different definitions:
- forego means “go before.”
- forgo means “go without.”
Despite this, many people use these words in place of each other. Many dictionaries even indicate that such imprecision is fine. Regardless, you should be careful of how you employ these words. You might be saying something other than what you intend.
Correct Use of Each Word
Let’s start with an example you might hear in a meeting:
We will forgo the reading of minutes from last week.
Written this way, the sentence indicates that you can skip reading last week’s minutes. That is simple enough and should be understood by everyone.
On the other hand, if you want to relate that reading of the minutes from last week will come before the current week’s agenda items, you would instead say:
Last week’s minutes will forego this week’s agenda items.
There is a lesson here involving the subject of the verb. A person or group might forgo – or go without – something, but a thing like last week’s minutes or an appetizer would forego something that comes after it, like the current agenda items or the main course.
The History of Forego and Forgo
While dictionaries might give you a pass on interchanging forgo and forego, linguists will not.
You see, the words forego and forgo have their roots in Old English. In their earlier iterations, their prefixes were quite distinct:
- In the Old English foregān, the prefix fore- meant earlier or
- In the Old English forgān, the prefix for– meant in prohibition, refusal, or exclusion of.
For both of these antique words, gān meant to go. So foregān literally meant to go before, and forgān meant to go while refusing.
As you can see, the lineages of forgo and forego leave little doubt that they have different definitions. Nonetheless, they still get used interchangeably.
Frequency of Usage
Breaking down the contemporary usage numbers, it is clear that forgo is more frequently written. Incidentally, this includes all its conjugations:
Regarding forego, its adjectival form is most common. The participial foregoing indicates that the noun it modifies happened before something else. For example:
The committee’s foregoing agreement made a subsequent vote possible.
You may be even more familiar with the past participle foregone, as in:
The passage of the bill is now a foregone conclusion.
However, the use of forego as a verb is rarer. A term like precede is more common in modern English. Considering that forego seldom finds use as a verb, when you see it in print, your first assumption will probably be that the writer intends it as an alternative spelling of forgo.
A Tip for Telling the Words Apart
If you want a simple tool for knowing the difference between forego and forgo, we have you covered.
The fore in forego is the same one as in before. With that in mind, you can remember that forego means to go before.
Conversely, forgo and forget both involve not taking action. Hence, forgo means moving on without doing something.