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English is Strange: Part 1

Updated on February 23, 2017

Why "fore" but also "for"?

As an English major and general word lover, I put much thought into the oddity that is the English language. With so many exceptions to the rule, unpredictable spellings, so many homophones and homonyms, it's a wonder non-native speakers master American English, and sometimes so easily, it seems. This is even more impressive considering native English speakers often have a trying time mastering all the rules of grammar, spelling, and syntax.

This hub is the first of a series of hubs discussing those strange English grammar and spelling occurrences, idioms, and the like that native speakers take for granted that non-native speakers may find obviously strange, misleading or confusing.

Today's topic: "Fore"

The word "fore" as in "foresight" or "forecast" generally refers to the future, or the front of things (the future being literally the time in front of us that has not happened yet). A person with foresight knows what will happen in the future, a forecaster has the ability to tell us what the weather will be for the next month or so. The "foreground" is the space in the front most part of an image. The "forelegs" of an animal are an animal's two front legs.

With so many words with the word/prefix "fore" being spelled with the terminal "e," I wouldn't be surprised if an American child or a non-native English speaker spelled all words with the "fore" sound in them with the terminal "e." But of course there are exceptions, so to always use the terminal "e" would be incorrect.

Such is the case with the word "forward." The same sound exists, but the "e" does not. I thought about this and decided it's actually a bit odd to spell "forward" without an "e," if "fore" does indeed refer to things in front or in the future. "Forward" has a lot of meanings in many contexts, but most often it's meant in the context of the direction; to walk in a forward motion aka to walk in front of where you presently stand, or to "face forward" aka to face the front.

I did a quick internet search for the etymology of "forward" to see if there was any reason the "e" so pervasive in other words referring to the front or the future was missing, seemingly illogically, from "forward." What I found was that old English used the word "forthweard" or "forthward" meaning "toward the future." So despite there not being an "e" in the old English version of "forward," the word still had the same general meaning. Discovering the word has had the same general meaning for the last several hundred years makes the current spelling of it--with no "e"--even more bizarre. *Original word use is much older, from German, but for the purpose of this article old English will suffice.*

I'm not going to make the case that we should begin a campaign to start spelling "forward" with an "e" to match the spelling to the meaning. But it is quite odd, at least to me, that despite the "for" in "forward" still carrying the same general meaning as the "fore" in "foresight" and "forecast" that "forward" is not spelled with an "e."

And if the meaning versus the spelling of "fore" weren't confusing enough, there is the use of "fore" in the word "forebears" to consider. "Forebears" are, of course, family members who came way before us, who lived many years ago (usually referring to hundreds of years ago). "Fore" refers to the future or the front, but in "forebears" means people from the past. Right......makes sense.....??????

So "fore" refers to the future and to the past (at least to certain people in the past). The same word/prefix meaning two things at once, and those two meanings being opposite of one another (the future and the past) seems quite confusing and strange. I certainly couldn't tell you decisively why "fore" refers to the future and the past. But I think considering the word in a broader context helps to clarify why "fore" would seemingly carry opposite meanings.

Consider the word "before": it has a very general meaning of "to come first," or "to happen in a moment in the past." "To come first" can refer to the person in the front of the line, or those who came first, who came before, referring to the past. "Before" is also used in the context of "the road before you," as in the literal or metaphorical road directly in front of you, the road you will in the very near future be traveling.

I'm not an etymologist or a history buff, and so I cannot tell you why the "for" in "forward" has no "e" but the "fore" in "forerunner", "forewarn", and "foreshadow" do, despite the homophones having generally the same meaning. However, I can see how this seeming inconsistency in spelling would be confusing to a non-native speaker. And maybe there is nothing helpful to some about thinking of the meaning of "before" to help explain how "fore" could refer to the past and the future. But it seemed relevant to me.

Sometimes English can be so strange!

*fun side thought: you didn't realize it was foreshadowing until the end of the story.*

What do you think?

Native English speaker or no, when learning to spell did you often mix up "fore" and "for"?

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    • bkwriter profile image
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      bkwriter 7 months ago from Beaverton Oregon

      Thank you RonElFran fro your comment. You make a good point, in addition to the points I made. The transformation of words over time is certainly an interesting phenomenon. With the "for" in "forward" I was just pointing out that the word means, among other things, to move in a direction that is in front of where you presently are, and that is interesting since "fore" also can refer to the front most part of something, such as the forearm or foreground.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 7 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      How is the "for" in "forward" different from the "fore" in other words? I notice that in "forerunner", "forewarn", and "foreshadow" the "fore" modifies a suffix that is also an independent word, by indicating a direction in time with respect to that suffix word. But that's not the case with "forward". Though "ward" is a word in its own right, and can be the suffix in other directional words ("toward", "backward"), you don't go toward or away from "ward". How that translates into the "e" being dropped I don't know, but it's an interesting distinction.