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November 5, 2007

Looking backward: The origin of 'Going forward'


Lucy Kellaway's column in today's Financial Times (FT) was a concession to the ubiquitous use of the phrase "going forward" in today's business-speak.

In her penultimate paragraph she wrote, "I've tried to find where this phrase comes from and it seems it may have been created by the SEC itself."

Clearly Lucy doesn't have access to the resources of my crack research team which, upon being asked to find out where the phrase originated, took less than five minutes drilling down in Google to bring back the news that no less a wordsmith than William Wordsworth (1770-1850) used it in an autobiographical 1805 poem, which follows.

    The Prelude

    O pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
    For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
    Upon our side, we who were strong in love;
    Bliss was it that dawn to be alive,
    But to be young was very Heaven: O times,
    In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
    Of custom, law, and statute took at once
    The attraction of a Country in Romance;
    When Reason seem'd the most to assert her rights
    When most intent on making of herself
    A prime enchantress—to assist the work,
    Which then was going forward in her name.
    Not favor'd spots alone, but the whole Earth!


Background on the poem may be found here.

The poem itself is here.

I immediately emailed Lucy with the findings above.

Hope she finds a way to work the news into a future column, otherwise the only people privy to the straight scoop will be joeheads.


Here's her FT column that precipitated the unusual flurry of activity this morning here at bookofjoe World Headquarters™.

    The battle is lost, going forward

    Going forward, I give up. Until a month ago I thought the way forward was to protest at the use of this horrid phrase. But now it is time to admit defeat. “Going forward” is with us on a go-forward basis, like it or not.

    The defeat became plain last month in a speech given by Christopher Cox, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. He was trying to persuade the financial sector to drop its traditional prose style, which has become so convoluted, legalistic and boring that retail investors routinely sling all documents in the bin unopened. Instead, he urged them to try short, clear and profound instead. They should aim at the style he once used when talking to a young woman. In just four plain words he said: “Will you marry me?” With even more impressive brevity, she replied: “Yes.”

    Mr Cox’s speech was funny and clear and true and was one of the best pleas I have seen for clear language. Yet sitting in the middle of it was the following sentence. “Still, although the learning curve will certainly flatten as we go forward, this year it was steep.”

    As we go forward? The fact that such a decent wordsmith should say this in a speech on plain English is devastating. It shows that the fight is lost. One might argue that “as we go forward” is better than “going forward” but the difference is minimal. The first trouble with the phrase is that it is almost always redundant. Here is a typical example taken from a recent report by the Federal Reserve: “Increased uncertainty has the potential to restrain economic growth going forward.” The last two words could and should be simply crossed out.

    If, on occasion, there is a need to spell out the idea of the future, we have some perfectly good words already. For pompous people there is “henceforth” and, for the rest of us, there is “in the future”.

    The second trouble is that “going forward” seems to gesture confidently towards the future, but is utterly vague on timing. Worse still, the phrase conveys the cheesy and misplaced idea that we are on a purposeful journey to a better place. In fact, the future comes whether you like it or not, with no effort from us. And, in terms of progress, history has confirmed that the future can be a lot worse than the present.

    Alone, these problems might be excusable. What is not excusable, however, and what makes “going forward” so lethal, is the way it clings to the tongue of the speaker so that it is uttered again and again. It has become a Tourette’s syndrome for people in the financial sector.

    Brady Dougan of Credit Suisse recently managed no fewer than four “going forwards” in one brief interview with the Financial Times. In each case the words attached themselves to the most stupid of utterances. “There’s a lot of liquidity out there ready to actually move into situations where there is value and where there’s viewed to be value going forward,” he said.

    If I translate this into the language of “will you marry me?” it means: “There is money in the market ready to be used to buy things that people consider undervalued.” And then you see what nonsense it is. Investors never buy anything unless they think it undervalued. That is how markets work.

    “Going forward” is so infectious that it has spread from inarticulate bankers and analysts to people who once had a fine way with words. John Makinson was the head of the FT’s Lex column when I joined the newspaper in the mid-1980s and he used to tell me off for bad writing. Now he is head of Penguin and was quoted in the FT two weeks ago saying “we’ll keep a careful watch going forward...”. John, how could you?

    Going forward is not only infectious, it is constantly mutating into new ugly forms. There is “the way forward”. There is “on a go-forward basis”. There is a new tendency to use it as tense modifier for people who can’t grasp the future tense. So you stick in a going forward, and then proceed in the present. “Going forward, we give feedback at every milestone.”

    My personal crusade against the phrase has done no good at all. In fact, it has done harm. A year or so ago I became a non-executive director and in my first board meeting the others were debating whether to write “in the short term” or “in the medium term” on a press release. I piped up: how about “in the future”, and then, putting on an ironic voice, suggested “or going forward, as it is now known?” The irony was missed, and fellow directors seized on it. “Ah yes!” they said, and “going forward” was put into the document. This was very discouraging. I had been hired on the board to take jargon out, not put it in.

    I’ve tried to find where this phrase comes from and it seems it may have been created by the SEC itself. Its rules on “forward- looking statements” require that anything about the future be weasel-worded and the “going forward” construction suits it well.

    This explains why the phrase sits so comfortably alongside the feeblest ideas, but feels wrong against anything lucid. This being the case, “going forward” does serve a purpose after all: it is a signal that the listener can switch off without missing anything. But no one would ever say: “Will you marry me going forward?” It would invite the answer: “No thank you. I’d rather spend my life with someone who knows how to talk.”



Lucy's latest book, "The Answers: All the Office Questions You Never Dared to Ask" (top) has just been published.

For further exploration: William Wordsworth's "Lucy" poems.

File under "What goes around, comes around."

November 5, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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I might be wrong but in the Wordsworth poem I think the usage of those words has to do with advancing. Not advancing in time as in the phrase in debate. There are so many other phrases that make less sense than, "going forward" that I don't understand what the problem is but it seems to aggravate a great deal of people.

Posted by: chris | Oct 31, 2008 10:38:47 PM

I'm so glad to learn that I'm not the only person bothered by hearing this phrase going backward (that means in the past, in case you are too stupid to figure out that things I've heard occurred in the past).
It is interesting how certain subcultures use & abuse words. For example, when one hears the misuse of the reflexive pronoun "myself" (as in "To obtain the forms, see John or myself."), it's usually a person with military affiliations.
Join my now on my crusade to illustrate the lunacy of the phrase "going forward." When we hear this phrase, we should ask the speaker for an opinion of what will happen on the same topic "going backward."

Posted by: Time Traveler | Jul 16, 2008 11:08:15 AM

"otherwise the only people privy to the straight scoop will be joeheads"

That's just a sign of a well-written and crack-researched blog. We ARE more well-informed - we get product news, articles from lots of sources, book reviews and SO much more.

Posted by: Mark | Nov 6, 2007 9:53:15 AM

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