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Fore or for? (And not forgetting four. . .)

Consider the following sentences, all real examples taken from the Oxford English Corpus (OEC). Are the words in bold spelled correctly?

?  According to the weather forcast it wasn’t supposed to snow in Birmingham today.
?  I’ll never foreget any of you.
His two sons are twenty-two and forteen years old.

Pat yourself on the back if you thought they were all wrong! There’s plenty of evidence on the OEC and elsewhere to prove that (as mentioned in my first blog about -able and -ible) similar-sounding prefixes and suffixes can cause no end of spelling problems.

The pair of prefixes for- and fore- are constantly mixed up, and no wonder. You pronounce them exactly the same and a few words (such as forgo) can even be spelled with or without the ‘e’. The language-savvy amongst you might have spotted that fourteen is derived from the number four, which is a complete word in its own right, rather than a partial prefix. This I know, but four sounds the same as fore- and for-, and forms other words. Given that these are frequently misspelled, too, I thought it would be useful to deal with them all together.

The good news is that the spellings for- and fore- aren’t completely arbitrary: there’s a logical reason for using one or the other, based on their meanings. Here are some general rules to help you get them right.

Going ‘fore-words’ not backwards

Tip one

Fore- (strictly speaking, it’s a combining form) comes from Old English and is related to the word before. Fore- is added to words to form words which have a group of meanings related to these main ideas:

  • before or in advance of someone or something in time (so today’s weather forecast tells you what the future weather is likely to be; if you are foresighted, you’re able to think and plan ahead).
  • in front or at the front of someone or something in terms of position (a forecourt is an area in front of a building; your forehead is at the front of your head).
  • in front of someone or something in rank or order (a foreman was originally a person who literally led others from the front, developing into the later meaning of ‘a leader or supervisor of people’).

Make the link in your mind with before, which ends in an ‘e’, and pick fore- if the word you want has any of these meanings.

Tip two

Simply speaking, there are far more words beginning with fore- than those beginning with for-, so if you choose fore- you’ve got a higher chance of being correct. In addition, fore- is an active or productive prefix, meaning that new words can still be formed from it: if you’re aware that the word is a recent coinage, then you’re more likely to be right if you spell it as fore-. Of course, you should always check any spelling in a dictionary if you’re not sure.

Here are some of the most common fore- words:

forearm foreground foremost foreskin
foreboding forehand forename forestall
forecast foreknowledge foreplay foretaste
foreclose foreland forequarters foretell
forecourt foreleg forerunner forethought
forefather forelimb foresee forewarn
forefinger forelock foreshadow foreword
forefront foreman foresight forewoman

Fortunately, for- is a dead prefix

Tip one

For- also derives from Old English, but the meanings of the words that it forms are very different to those beginning with fore-. You’ll find it at the start of words which have meanings conveying these ideas:

  • banning someone or something (if you forbid something you refuse to allow it).
  • giving up or doing without something (so to forfeit something is to give it up).
  • failing to do something (when you forget something, you don’t remember something that you should have done).

So if the word you want has one of the above meanings and has nothing to do with being before in time, place, or order, then it should begin with for-.

Tip two

Good news! No words have been formed from for- for many hundreds of years: in contrast to fore-, it’s a dead prefix. This means there’s only a small set of current English words that begin with for-: here are the most common ones:

forbear forfeit forgive forlorn
forbearance forget forgiveness forsake
forbid forgetful forgo forswear

When errors are almost a foregone conclusion

Now we’re equipped with some overall rules of thumb, let’s look at a few words that can begin with either for- and fore-, depending on their meanings. Naturally, this leads to many mistakes. The two key pairs of words having this feature are the verb forbear and the noun forebear, and the verbs forego and forgo.

  • Forebear/forbear

Forebear is a noun which is formed from fore- (‘before’) and the obsolete word beer, which means ‘someone who exists’. So a forebear is someone who existed before you: in other words, your ancestor.

✓  Assessing the quality of life of our sixteenth-century forebears is difficult.
Thankfully, our medieval forbears were made of sterner stuff.

The situation isn’t entirely cut and dried: although the main spelling is forebear, many dictionaries allow the spelling forbear as a variant. If you want to avoid confusion or criticism, however, I’d recommend only spelling the noun with fore-;

To forbear to do something is to stop yourself from doing it. This verb comes from the prefix for- and bear in the sense ‘to endure something’. The past tense is forbore and the past participle is forborne. None of the verb forms are ever spelled with fore- at the beginning, and neither is the related noun forbearance:

✓  I could not forbear asking one more question as he walked away.
✓  We would ask road users to show forbearance and patience.

✗  When with you on Wednesday I forebore to speak to you about your great trouble.
✗  He’s put up with an unreasonable amount of stupidity with great patience and forebearance.

The other difference between forebear and forbear is the pronunciation: forebear (noun) has the stress on the first syllable (forebear) and the verb forbear is stressed on the final syllable (forbear).

  • Forego/forgo

To forego someone or something is to go before or precede them. Forego comes from fore- (‘before’) and go. It’s an archaic verb which nowadays crops up mainly as the participial adjectives foregoing and foregone. Although there are 153 instances of ‘forgone conclusion’ on the OEC, in standard usage this verb is never spelled with for- at the beginning:

✓  I have described in the foregoing passages of this judgement the lives of the two children.
✓  The result of her trial was a foregone conclusion.

✗  The forgoing information was not general knowledge at the time.
✗  It’s a forgone conclusion that people find different ideals to fight for.

Forgo means ‘to go without or to abstain from something’. It’s an Old English verb that comes from for- (with the idea of ‘renouncing completely’) and go. While dictionaries do allow the variant spelling forego, I’d advise choosing the main spelling forgo to avoid confusion with forego (‘go before’):

✓  No one expects you to forgo dessert all the time.
✓  Later I discovered he had modestly forgone to tell me he himself is a writer.

They may forego their lunch break or decide to work late.
?   Doctors have already foregone £6 million in wages for such work in recent years.

Faulty forties

Are you clearer now about fore- and for-? Hope so! But what about the number four? People rarely seem to misspell it as for, but evidence suggests that they have more trouble with words relating to four, such as fourteen and fourth. It’s easy to find mistakes in all types of writing, from scientific journals to online newspapers:

✗  In the forteenth century, the Wolof empire…included six states.
✗  After 50,000 generations in the first two runs and 70,000 generations in the third and forth run, likelihood scores appeared to be stationary.

The best tip I can offer is that all the words related to the number four should be spelled with a ‘u’ after the ‘o’, apart from just one: forty. You might think it would be logical to spell forty as fourty, along the lines of sixty or eighty, but you just have to accept that it isn’t (nowadays*), and remember to drop the ‘u’ in this case only. There are 128 examples of fourty on the OEC, but you’ll never get it wrong now, will you?

✓  They service 850 customer airlines in forty countries on four continents.
✗  All citizens from six to fourty years of age were made to attend school.

*A footnote, for those with a historical interest in English: in Middle English (such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) and until the 17th century, the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that fourty was an accepted spelling. However, language moves on, and the spelling forty, first recorded in the 16th century, eventually won the day and became the norm. . . for now.

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