Thursday, May 17, 2018

The past plead

I was puzzled by a graphic on MSNBC this afternoon: headshots of miscreants, each labeled Indicted or Plead Guilty. Not Pleaded?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage:

Plead belongs to the same class of verbs as bleed, lead, speed, read, and feed, and like them it has a past and past participle with a short vowel spelled pled or sometimes plead. Competing with the short-vowel form from the beginning was a regular form pleaded. Eventually pleaded came to predominate in mainstream British English, while pled retreated into Scottish and other dialectal use. Through Scottish immigration or some other means, pled reached America and became established here.
M-W goes on to say that after coming under attack in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, pled is now “fully respectable,” and that “both pled (or plead) and pleaded are in good use in the U.S.” In other words, people say and write these words (including, in M-W’s examples, Sinclair Lewis and a New Yorker contributor), so the words are okay.

In contrast, Garner’s Modern English Usage:
Pleaded has always been the predominant past-tense and past-participial form. From the early 1600s, pleaded has appeared much more frequently in print sources than its rivals. Commentators on usage have long preferred it, pouring drops of vitriol onto *has pled and *has plead. . . .

The problem with these strong pronouncements, of course, is that *pled and *plead have gained some standing in AmE. . . .

Still, pleaded, the vastly predominant form in both AmE and BrE, is always the best choice.
In a sentence, the past tense plead may pose no problem for a reader: “Appearing before a judge this morning, he plead guilty.” Even there, though, my first inclination is to read plead as a present tense. On its own, plead guilty may look like an instance of the present tense, or like a mistake for pled or pleaded. And pled itself may look like a mistake for the “vastly predominant” pleaded. To my mind, Bryan Garner is right: pleaded is the best choice.

[Garner on The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage: “I really cannot read a page of that book without having a significant rise in my blood pressure.” In GMEU an asterisk marks “invariably poor usage.”]

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