Here's an experiment you can do for yourself. Go to the news search engine of your choice, and type in "going forward." Of the tens of thousands of hits that are returned, you will probably find some sentences like these:

1) Expect earning downgrades to continue going forward.

2) A key market driver going forward is increasing systemic risk resulting from over-leveraged megabanks.

3) Syracuse needs a confident Brandon Triche going forward.

4) Going forward, we will compare Chris Jones and Quinten Snider and whoever comes next to Peyton Siva.

5) Owners Henry and Susan Samueli have made a major commitment to this organization going forward.

Now read the sentences without "going forward" and see if anything is lost. The verdict? Not a whole lot. Most of the sentences contain a marker that clues you up about the direction on the timeline where the writer would have your attention focused. In 1), both the verbs "expect" and "continue" imply what is to come. In 2), "driver" and the present tense verb tells us we won't be going backwards. The mention of "need" in 3), combined with the knowledge that present needs can only be met in the future, adequately leaves the past out of the picture. 4) has a future tense marker. 5) is ambiguous because "going forward" might predicate "organization" or it might be an adverbial for the whole sentence, but if it's the latter, it doesn't give us information that is required for understanding.

You probably hear going forward used in ways similar to what you see in these sentences every day and you may use it yourself. The phrase is beloved in the Obama administration and among many other politicians, as well as in business and sports journalism and in marketing. The use of the present participle "going" combined with the future and progressive connotations of the adverb "forward" make the phrase attractive to writers and speakers today as a way of marrying up the present with the promise of the future. So it is pointless to peeve about going forward, and impossible to avoid it. Going forward does, however, provide an opportunity to look at the many ways that English offers to unite "now" with what may lie ahead, and the ways in which fashions in usage, among other factors, influence how speakers and writers signal their expectations or wishes.

On the theory that English favors economy of expression — that short and sweet is a better bet than prolix and verbose — you would think that one of the oldest words in English for joining the present to the future would get more airtime: henceforth. Henceforth has been with us since the 14th century, along with its synonym henceforward. But there is a kind of hex on hence, whence, and thence, along with the compounds formed from them, that suppresses them in a lot of mainstream discourse. Perhaps it's the connotation with older, formal, legal, or ecclesiastical language that prevents henceforth from coming forward to the lips of speakers in everyday language. There are usages like these, for example, from the King James Version of the Bible:

For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. (Matthew 23:39)

And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth. (Revelation 14:13)

So far no published Bible translation has replaced these henceforths with "going forward," though it may be only a matter of time before that happens. Most translations prefer from now on in these two passages. And speaking of from now on, it's also economical, unencumbered by any register connotations like henceforth, and still very popular today. Google Ngrams suggests that it did not really take off till the late 19th century and it still enjoys widespread usage, though it has probably lost a little ground recently to going forward among some speakers. The more emphatic from this moment on is also popular, undoubtedly helped by two songs that have it as a title, one by Cole Porter and one by Shania Twain.

I alluded to a small advantage that going forward and its alternatives above enjoy — that of definitely connecting the present with the future. This is an advantage absent in another common phrase, in future, which is used mainly in British English and its closest spinoffs. Dictionaries will tell you that in future means "from now on." Despite its dictionary definition, in future fails to make the explicit connection with the present that we find in the other expressions noted, and so perhaps suggests a vagueness of commitment to "now" on the part of the speaker that hearers may find unacceptable. Speakers and writers, on the other hand, may shy from the much stronger commitment to the present implied by phrases like starting now or starting today, a commitment that the fuzzier going forward allows them to dodge.

So far (or, I could say, heretofore) I've taken for granted that we're all subscribing to the consensus version of the timeline, the one on which we all have starting points and on which another date will eventually mark our stopping point. This timeline began indefinitely long ago and will continue indefinitely into the future, but we all agree on the knowable part of it and we break it up with numbers and markers we all agree upon, such as January 4, 1980, yesterday, three weeks ago, next month, and so forth. I talked about the arbitrariness of this understanding a few years ago in the Lounge, and the notion that linear time is perhaps just a convention, a metaphor of space that we find convenient as a backdrop for placing events on.

An inescapable feature of this conception of time is that there is really only one part of it that we can talk about with any certainty: the part that ends right now. When we say "up to now" (or heretofore or hitherto, for moments of elevated style), we're talking about things that are for the most part independently verifiable. But when we say "from now on," "starting today," "in future," or "henceforth," we're putting a marker in the timeline that relies on speculation, hope, and the assumption, reasonable in some circumstances, that the future will resemble the past and that we will be able to control or influence parts of it. Perhaps this fact explains the appeal of going forward and its current tendency to push out more precise expressions about the future: it conveys with a kind of warm fuzziness the one thing that we can be sure of in relation to time: we, and all things we know, will be going forward with it.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 1st 2013, 5:28 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Wow! I loved this essay. It joined the grammatical to the cosmological.
Monday April 1st 2013, 1:58 PM
Comment by: Robert M.
"Looking ahead" often plays the role of "going forward."
Tuesday April 2nd 2013, 10:51 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
I don't really like "going forward," but I confess I do use it in business correspondence. The most obvious substitute, "from now on," to me has a connotation of authoritarianism: "From now on, this is how it's going to be." It brooks no discussion. "Going forward" seems more flexible, more open to collaborative participation. I'm not sure why that is.

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