October 7, 2009

Language Tips: forego or forgo & tack or tact

Posted in forego or forgo? at 11:49 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: forego or forgo

I recently ran across this bit of text in a very nicely written grant proposal:

Many aspiring clinician-investigators have been forced to forego their research in favor of clinical duties, because, without career-development support, the time- and financial-pressures placed upon us become too great.

I am entirely supportive of career development grants for new investigators. Protected time is critical when you are just starting out. It allows you time to acquire the skills you will need to conduct your independent research and the opportunity to carry out research studies in a mentored environment. And, with any luck, it allows you the time to discover the difference between ‘forego’ and ‘forgo.’

Although we first discussed this early in 2008, it clearly is still a problem, and it is such a common mistake that a littler refresher is in order.

Forego means to go before. A handy way to remember this is to think of the word ‘before’ and remember that ‘fore’ is used in this context.

The foregoing innings were just a prelude to the climactic ninth.

The foregone conclusion was that no proposal with a score of greater than 70 would be funded.

Incidentally, you are more likely to see ‘forego’ used in the phrase ‘foregone conclusion’ than in any other construct. It is hardly ever used in any other form these days.

Forgo, on the other hand, means something entirely different. It means to waive or do without.

In the sentence above, clinician investigators have been forced to forgo research in favor of clinical duties.

After filling up on several helpings of spaghetti, he had to, reluctantly, forgo dessert.

Let’s forgo the petty partisan scare tactics and self-serving lies about death panels and concentrate our efforts on creating a viable health care reform bill.

A number of references say that the words can be used interchangeably these days-I guess they are worn down from the constant misuse, but I believe that is the lazy way out. It is easy enough to remember that ‘forego’ is rarely used so when in doubt, use ‘forgo,’ and you will almost always be correct.

One more time: when in doubt, forgo forego!

Tip 2: Tack or tact

A reader writes:

Have you written about misusing ‘tact’ for ‘tack’ as in ‘Since that didn’t work, we’ll need to take a different tact’?

Thanks for the idea. This comes up all the time, even in print, which is especially exasperating.

Microsoft has acquired the domain name Office.com, but the software company appears to have taken a slightly different tact in acquiring it than it has in the past.

Write another advertisement that takes a slightly different tact.

[NOTE: The above example comes from yourdictionary.com where it is given as an example of one of the meanings of ‘tact.’ Of all of the online dictionaries available, PLEASE DO NOT USE THIS ONE. Yourdictionary.com is rampant with errors and is completely unreliable. Using it will be hazardous to your writing! Please stay away from this one.]

Instead of trying to argue the point form the viewpoint of a consumer, can you identify the specific ways in which it would benefit the stockholder? You need a different tact.

And especially ironic is this example from the AP.

Navy tries different tact to get OLF site
The Associated Press
Posted : Sunday Sep 23, 2007 15:01:36 EDT

RALEIGH, N.C. – The Navy’s record on pushing a jet practice landing field in Washington and Beaufort counties has been called manipulative, deceptive and downright disrespectful by opponents.

“The Navy’s arrogance prevailed throughout,” said Jennifer Alligood, chairwoman of North Carolinians Opposing the Outlying Landing Field. “They were stubborn.”

Now with its preferred choice all but blocked by Congress and opposed uniformly by North Carolina officials due to environmental concerns, the Navy’s top brass hopes a different tact – cooperation – will lead to a suitable location.

Why ironic? Well let’s look at the actual meanings. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, ‘tact’ means :

A keen sense of what to do or say in order to maintain good relations with others or avoid offense

You should never use ‘tact’ when writing about taking a different turn. The correct expression is a different ‘tack.’ “Tack’ is a nautical term (thus, the irony in the story about the Navy) related to sailing. Again, according to Merriam-Webster’s:

a: the direction of a ship with respect to the trim of her sails <starboard tack>
b: the run of a sailing ship on one tack
c: a change when close-hauled from the starboard to the port tack or vice versa
d: a zigzag movement on land
e: a course or method of action; especially : one sharply divergent from that previously followed

So why the mix-up? My suspicion is that the offenders relate ‘tact’ to ‘tactic’ and mistakenly use ‘tact.’ But just remember that ‘tack’ relates to a boat turning, and you’ll be on the right track…er tack? ..tact? Oh, never mind!



  1. Elizabeth Hinesley said,

    I am a retired English teacher and one of my former students passed this blog along to me. I would enjoy receiving the regular posting.
    Thank you!

    • dlseltzer said,

      Would that be Shanta? I’m happy to add you to the mailing list. Welcome, deb

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