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TWTS: "Proven" and "proved" are both approved

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If you prove something to be true, then it’s proven. Or is it proved?

Questions like this are a source of great stress for some of us. Make the wrong choice and the grammar grumblers will be out in force. However, “proved” vs. “proven” might actually be a language safe zone.

“For a long time, I talked about ‘proven’ and ‘proved’ as this great example of variation in standard writing where there was no judgement,” says Professor Anne Curzan.

Curzan still feels this is largely right. But because humans insist on quibbling over even the most benign subjects, there is a history of some judgement over this variation.

For example, Richard Grant White, in his 1876 book Words and Their Uses, Past and Present, says that proven “should perhaps be ranked among words that are not words:

“Those who use [proven] seem to think that it means something more or other then the word for which it is, a mere lowland-Scotch and north-of-England provincialism. ‘Prove’ is the past participle of the verb ‘to prove’ and should be used by all who wish to speak English.”

Suffice to say, Richard Grant White was known to be a little cranky about usage issues. This excerpt serves as an example of him policing which varieties of English count as actual English.

The verb “prove” was borrowed into English from French in the Middle English period. It created its past tense and past participle like other regular verbs, by adding “ed.”

The past participle “proven” was originally Scots. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary speculate that it probably was created through analogy with verbs like “weave,” with the past participle “woven,” and “cleave,” with the past participle “cloven.”

By the late 19th century, “proven” started to gain momentum beyond Scottish English. Today, the Google Books corpus shows that “has proved” and “has proven” are neck and neck in terms of usage. “Proved” is more common, but “proven” isn’t far behind.

Though not every style guide fully agrees, Professor Anne Curzan says it’s fair to say that both forms could now be considered standard.

“You’ll see ‘has proved’ and ‘has proven’ both in formal usage, sometimes even in the same work,” says Curzan. “I think it’s a nice example of a place in standardized formal English where we have variation.”

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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.