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Opinion

Column: A Word, Please: Whether someone pled or pleaded guilty is in question

If you ever feel like a wallflower and want lots of attention pronto, here’s an idea: Express an opinion about “pled” versus “pleaded” on social media. Any opinion will do.

No matter what you say, you’ll get tons of people telling you you’re wrong and just as many people telling your detractors that they, in fact, are wrong.

Recently, former U.S. Atty. Preet Bharara took to Twitter to espouse his preference for “pled” over “pleaded.” The tweet got 19,000 likes and 1,100 replies, many of them passionately arguing one side or the other.

“Bravo!,” one anonymous Twitter user replied. “Grammatically, it should be ‘pled’ in a legal context. ‘Pleaded’ is for intimate, personal interactions. ‘He pled guilty to Mueller’s charges, then pleaded with his wife to forgive him.’”

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This isn’t the first time a controversy over “pled” versus “pleaded” has set the internet on fire.

In late 2017, self-styled language sleuths set out to determine the true author of a presidential tweet based solely on its use of “pled” as the past participle of “plead.”

Amid speculation that lawyer John Dowd penned the tweet under Donald Trump’s name, one observer stirred up a hornet’s nest by asking, “We’re supposed to believe John Dowd wrote pled instead of pleaded?”

The implication: Surely, no lawyer would use the obviously incorrect “pled,” right?

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I understand why people have strong opinions on language. I might have a few myself.

But I don’t understand how people who are certain one way is right and another is wrong don’t consult a dictionary before they document their unfounded certainty in a public forum.

For example, the person who tweeted that “pleaded” is reserved for intimate personal relationships offered no source for the assertion other than his own absolute certainty.

I’ve been writing about language since 2002, researching such matters on a regular basis, and never come across this idea, much less a rule to this effect.

So which is right: pled or pleaded? Regular readers probably hear this coming: Both forms are correct. The one you choose should depend on whose authority you accept.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says the simple past tense and the past participle form are “pleaded or pled,” in that order. That means you can use both.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary takes a narrower view: It gives you just one option: pleaded.

American Heritage sides with Merriam’s, stating that pleaded and pled are both acceptable.

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For regular everyday users, dictionaries are the best authorities. And because some dictionaries allow either “pled” or “pleaded,” you can consider that a green light to use whichever you prefer.

But more specialized language authorities aren’t as flexible.

The Associated Press Stylebook states: “Do not use the colloquial past-tense form ‘pled.’”

Remember that AP’s job is different from the dictionary’s job. AP is a playbook that aims to help ensure consistency within a publication.

It’s not AP’s job to say, “You can use either.” It’s AP’s job to say, “We need to write it the same way on Page 1 that we do on Page 20, so we’re going to make a call here.”

If you want to know what’s proper in legal contexts, you turn to a legal language expert like Bryan Garner.

In Garner’s Modern American Usage, he acknowledges that both forms are acceptable in general usage. He even offers some interesting insights into the differences between American and British English.

The Brits, it turns out, are no fans of “pled.” Though that form was once more common across the pond, “pled” has taken a dive in popularity in recent centuries.

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But as a legal language expert, Garner has a clear preference. “Traditionally speaking, ‘pleaded’ is the best past-tense and past-participial form.”

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.


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