Pleaded vs. Pled

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks to know the past tense and past participle of the verb “to plead”:

I have heard “pled” being used. Is this correct?

The question of pleaded vs. pled is the source of much online discussion, little of it neutral:

I personally think it makes newscasters and journalists sound ignorant when they use “pleaded” to describe what some defendant did in the court.

I am actually shocked at the number of people who assert that “pled” is correct or that “pled” sounds correct to them. The hair on my neck stands up whenever I hear someone utter the word “pled.”

Some speakers despise pled as an Americanism:

The past tense of the verb “to plead” is “pleaded”. “Pled”, no matter how it is spelled, is an American illiteracy.

Others defend pled because it’s not an Americanism:

Pled, pled, pled, pled, I shall go ahead and use it! I grew up where UK usage was prevalent, but USA usage is now the norm. PLED is UK and Pleaded is USA English. I’m writing pled, pled, pled, pled, pled!!!!

Pled is not an “Americanism.” The British poet Sir Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) uses pled as a past form of the verb plead in The Faerie Queene (1590-1596):

And with him to make part against her, came
Many grave persons, that against her pled; (the trial of Duessa)

The OED gives pleaded as the past of plead, but notes that pled is used as the past form in Scottish and US usage.

A statistical analysis made by legal blogger Eugene Volokh of the use of “pleaded guilty” vs “pled guilty” and “well-pleaded” vs “well-pled” in the ALLCASES database in Westlaw shows an almost 50-50 use of the forms pled and pleaded. Volokh concludes that both uses “are fully standard” and that he sees “no basis for labeling either ‘incorrect.’ ”

Nevertheless, both The Chicago Manual of Style and The AP Stylebook come down firmly on the side of pleaded:

pleaded; pled. The first is the standard past-tense and past-participial form. Avoid pled. –CMOS, 5.220 “Good usage versus common usage.”

plead, pleaded, pleading: Do not use the colloquial past tense form, pled. –AP Stylebook.

With two such influential style guides against it, pled–at least in printed matter–will probably fade away.

A site for lawyers called Above the Law polled readers in 2008 and again in 2011, asking how many preferred pled to pleaded. In 2008, pled garnered 62.5% of the vote; in 2011, pled was still ahead, but the percentage of speakers preferring it had slipped to 57%.

On the other hand, pled will very likely hang on in speech.

Many speakers, perceiving a difference between pleaded and pled, use both, depending on context.

For many speakers, pleaded carries the connotation of begging or beseeching, whereas pled is a less loaded word:

The condemned man pleaded for his life.
The witness pled the Fifth.

Many English verbs retain two past forms that are used with different meanings. For example, the verb “to hang” retains two past forms: hanged and hung. And both CMOS and AP allow for the use of both forms:

hanged; hung. Hanged is used as the past participle of hang only in its transitive form when referring to the killing (just or unjust) of a human being by suspending the person by the neck: “Criminals were hanged at Tyburn Hill.” But if death is not intended or likely, or if the person is suspended by a body part other than the neck, hung is correct: “He was hung upside down as a cruel prank.” In most senses, of course, hung is the past form of hang: “Mark hung up his clothes.” All inanimate objects, such as pictures and Christmas stockings, are hung. –CMOS, 5.220 “Good usage versus common usage.”

hang, hanged, hung: One hangs a picture, a criminal or oneself. For past tense or the passive, use hanged when referring to executions or suicides, hung for other actions. –The AP Stylebook.

Bottom line: Both pleaded and pled are acceptable Standard English. Use the form you prefer in speech. Use the form required by your style guide for writing.

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10 Responses to “Pleaded vs. Pled”

  • Michaela

    Using the phrases ‘he pleaded guilty’ and ‘he pled guilty’, I see that Google’s ngram tool shows pleaded to be most used in both British and American English. Pled is listed as slightly gaining in usage recently in AE, but still almost non-existent in BE. (Even the auto-correct on my computer underlines pled as incorrect (BE). I think I’ll stick with pleaded.

  • Alia

    I must strongly object to the person cited who claimed that ‘pled, pled pled!’ was ‘routinely’ used in England. It is absolutely not used in any sense in England – except perhaps by those with little education. For what it is worth, I am a lawyer and I certainly feel qualified to speak to this terminology. Whether everyday street use, print media or within the legal arena, ‘pled’ is simply not used and is an aberration to the ear.

  • Gordon Havens

    Soon they’ll be arguing for “He bleeded to death.”

  • Brad Hoona

    @Michaela It’s legal usage, so a journalism guide that preaches a different usage is like the tail wagging the dog. American appellate judges have used “pled guilty” more than “pleaded guilty” in their opinions every single year since 1998. Not only is it not fading away, but it is majority usage in the legal profession in the US.

  • venqax

    @Gordon Havens: I agree on aesthetic grounds because pleaded simply sounds as wrong as bleeded does. Or having readed a book, feeded the cat, or fleeded from danger. All in all, I think more “long E then D” verbs are “strong” and change that vowel for tense than resort to the boring, standard-issue “stick an ED on it and it’s done” approach to past tensery*.

    I don’t know why anyone would think it’s an Americanism. Americanisms tend to go the opposite direction, towards standardization. And it’s well-known (as Maeve points out) that, right or wrong, pled is a very old usage. If it were questioned at all it would have to be as “Is it still a good usage”, not is it one at all.

    As for these “style guides”, it’s deeply mysterious where they get some of their ideas from. Their hung/hanged distinction does not have any real authority either, beyond one style book citing another style book (or simply citing itself sui generis). Hung vs hanged has become a common practice, that is all. It is not a definitional rule or even a very old distinction. I do agree that the hung/hanged distinction can be useful, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it is no more useful than a distinction between pleaded and pled would be (should someone for some reason believe that the clunky-sounding “pleaded” had to be keeped and feeded for some reason.) Specifically, if one were to say he pleaded for his life, it would not sound any alarm at all in me (well, not a linguistic alarm, anyway). But for that same person to say he pleaded not guilty to the crime sounds at least as bad as saying he did not want to be hung for it. At the very least pled must be preferred for the specific meaning of addressing a legal charge. Otherwise the court sounds like a nursery school and that isn’t good. Legal language should at least sound well-bred.

    Last, it is probably no accident that pled has a Scottish connection, as Scottish influenced American English a lot. Like discerning Americans, it is the Scots, after all, who still know something of the difference between whales and Wales. And it’s the English, ironically, who think they’re the civilized ones!

    *I’m making up that word. I’m thinking something like, “the practice of forming, holding or encouraging a tense”.

  • Maeve

    Venqax,
    I rather like “past tensery.” It fits right in there with “flummery” and “filimflammery.”

  • thebluebird11

    American Woman giving her 2 cents: When I speak, I usually use pled for legal matters, pleaded for other stuff. However, both are fine with me to use either way. If I were governed by a style guide, I would defer to it.
    As far as precedents, either set by other grammatical constructions (hung/hanged) or feared of being set by pled/pleaded (bred/breeded, bled/bleeded), this is just how English is. It’s a living language. If we suddenly found a need for these words, they would create them. If you’re a dog breeder and you have been breeding dogs and one litter was not so hotsy-totsy, maybe you breeded them wrong. If you’re a loanshark and bled your customers, maybe you got whacked because you bleeded the wrong customer. Who knows.

  • venqax

    Maeve:
    I like that! “Flummery!”.

    bluebird: I usually use pled for legal matters, pleaded for other stuff. Hoorah! And don’t let those style guides bully you when they really didn’t have a leg to have standed on. It’s one thing to say that if a sudden need emerged for a word it would get met. But in this case, there is no need for special pleading for pleaded when pled is already entered. It’s not like, OMG there is no past tense for plead! How can we say we did it!?

  • Frank Cranmer

    “On 25 April 2014, in answer to the complaint, the appellant pled not guilty”: per Lord Brodie [at para 1] in Wilson, appeal by, against Procurator Fiscal, Glasgow [2015] ScotHC HCJAC 26 (10 March 2015). If it’s good enough for the High Court of Justiciary, it’s good enough for me.

  • Sharon Green

    In my mind the problem begins with conjugation the verb from it’s past tense. Plea is the present tense which becomes plead in the past tense. Simply astounding that anyone would add ed to make it sound like stuttering or baby talk.

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