Pleaded Guilty

A Modest Plea

The bank, a news article reported, “had pled guilty to charges that it made false entries.”

Why “pled”? A lot of lawyers (and a lot of lawyerly writings) seem to prefer it, and some dictionaries list it as an alternative past tense for “plead.” But we don’t say someone “pled for his life,” or “pled for mercy.” We say “pleaded.” And so it should be with legal pleas. Case closed, one hopes.

But no, not quite closed, and fair enough.

Drew Trott, a staff attorney at the Sixth District Court of Appeal in San Jose, saw those thoughts on the Web and was doubtful. He said he looked in the ultra-comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary and found quite a few examples of “pled,” starting with Edmund Spenser in 1596. For himself, Mr. Trott said he not only used the word and ran into it in both formal and informal contexts, but found it more pleasing to the ear than “pleaded.”

“I suspect it is for similar reasons,” he e-mailed, “that we don’t say ‘readed,’ ‘bleeded’ or ‘speeded’ — they are unpoetic…I acknowledge that we lawyers do say ‘deeded,’ but in that instance, consider the alternative.”

Aha! A point well taken. And more research seemed essential.

The O.E.D. traces “pled” to Scottish legal usage and dialect. The dictionary’s citations are balanced, and those for “pleaded,” by gum, include Blackstone, the giant of Western law.

Several references call “pled” colloquial, but a couple say it is established American usage. If so, it doesn’t seem frequent in any kind of formal writing, and the American press certainly isn’t sympathetic to it. A Nexis search turned up “pleaded” overwhelmingly.

That result is probably skewed, however. The Associated Press stylebook, the guide on such matters for most American newspapers, condemns “pled” as colloquial. And the New York Times stylebook, also influential, prescribes “pleaded” without comment.

There may be room for argument, and “pled” may gaining. It is certainly not irrational for the ear to prefer it to “pleaded.” But the strong preference here, and clearly the safer course in American journalistic writing early in the 21 st century, remains “pleaded.”

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Evan Jenkins wrote the Language Corner column for CJR through the Fall of 2007.