“That August Leopoldo and Felicidad forwent vacation away from the city and waited for the baby to arrive in ‘the sad, dusty Madrid of summer.’”
This passage, which begins chapter 15 of “The Age of Disenchantments” by Aaron Shulman, effectively piques the reader’s curiosity about the protagonists, raising any number of intriguing questions about what happens next, what makes Madrid seem “sad” at that time of year and how that melancholia portends for the couple and their family.
But to wordy types, one question obscures all the others. That question was expressed as a single word by a copy editor posting on social media: “Forwent”?
As editors, we try to discourage writers from using words that distract from the message of the sentence.
Writers don’t always see things the same way. They have other objectives, and interesting language that delivers a little jolt can be exactly what they’re aiming for. So no one’s wrong here.
But as someone whose job is to look for language that might get in the way of the message, I share the copy editor’s query: “Forwent”?
Is this the proper past tense of “forgo”? Is it, perhaps, also the past tense of “forego”? If so, why does it seem so odd? Even if it’s correct, should it be replaced?
Let’s start by looking at “forgo” — for my money, one of the most misused words in writing. People tend to assume there’s an E in there: forego. And spell-checkers don’t correct them. That’s because “forego” is also a word. It’s just not the word people usually want.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen “forego” used correctly and on purpose. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s: “forego: to go before; precede.” So if you were talking about someone whose reputation preceded him, you’d say, “The story of his mishap foregoes him.”
And, really: How often do you hear something like that?
The past tense forms are even weirder: “The story of his mishap forewent him” shows the proper simple past tense. Here’s the past participle in action: “The story of his mishap has foregone him.” Not a popular turn of phrase.
Interestingly, this “foregone” does live on in one tiny corner of the language: a “foregone conclusion” uses this past participle as a modifier. The expression is so ingrained that Merriam’s online dictionary even has an entry for the whole phrase.
“A foregone conclusion: something certain to happen. ‘At this point, his victory seemed to be a foregone conclusion.” So, yes, that’s the same forego we never use in the present tense.
The word we do sometimes use — or try to use — is “forgo.” That means to do without. As Merriam’s defines it, to “forgo” is “to give up the enjoyment or advantage of; do without.”
For example, “Those guys never forgo an opportunity to turn a profit.”
Note that it has no E. Any copy editor will tell you that most writers put an E in there anyway. We know because it’s our job to take it out.
Google “forego” misused in an example phrase of your choosing, and you’ll see that it’s a very popular error. I got 640,000 hits for “I had to forego,” with examples like “I had to forego my own creative projects” and “I had to forego a lot of immediate financial rewards.” Again, those should be “forgo.”
The past forms of “forgo” are uncommon, bordering on odd. The simple past tense is “forwent”: “When they were in business, those guys never forwent an opportunity to profit.” That form is so uncommon that my Microsoft Word spell-checker flags it as an error.
The past participle is “forgone”: “In all their years in business, those guys have never forgone an opportunity to profit.”
This brings us back to the sentence that started our discussion: “Leopoldo and Felicidad forwent vacation.” Yes, it’s ungainly. Yes, it seems weird. But, as a dictionary will tell you, it is correct.