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The case of "pleaded" v. "pled"

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The courtroom may not be the best place to ponder grammar and language issues. If you do find yourself in a courtroom, it's likely you've got bigger problems on your hands -- especially if you're the defendant.

Assuming you're a word nerd like us though, you may find yourself distracted by a grammatical question regarding the verb "to plead." 

There's no mystery when it comes to the present tense -- "I plead not guilty." But if someone asks you about your plea later, do you tell them you "pleaded" not guilty or "pled" not guilty?

Historically, "pleaded" has been considered the correct past tense and past participle form for several centuries now. But there's good cause for thinking that it should be "pled."

Think about "bleed." You wouldn't say "bleeded" -- you'd say "bled." The same goes for words like "speed" and "sped," and "feed" and "fed." Following that pattern, it's not hard to see how "plead" could become "pled."

The verb "to plead" has actually had two past tenses for quite a long time. The form "pled" goes back to the 1200s, and "pleaded" goes back almost as long. In British English, "pleaded" came to dominate, while from what we can tell, "pled" became more of a Scottish form.

In his usage guide, lexicographer Bryan Garner says, "Traditionally speaking, 'pleaded' is the best past tense and past participle form." Garner has also written a dictionary of legal usage in which he says, "'Pled' is an alternative past-tense form that is to be avoided." The Associated Press also prefers "pleaded" and refers to "pled" as colloquial.  

"I would say that right now, 'pleaded' is the safest bet if you're talking about law," says English Professor Anne Curzan. "But in terms of what's standard usage the rest of the time for those of us who are not legal scholars, I think you can really do either 'pleaded' or 'plead.'"

Which do you prefer? Let us know below.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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