Have You ‘Pleaded’ or ‘Pled’ in a Court of Law?

If you are puzzled by recent news reports and their use of pleaded or pled, these sources can help you decide which is right — or maybe I should say which is preferred.

If you enter a plea of not guilty today in response to a charge or indictment — in other words, if you plead not guilty — would you say tomorrow that you pleaded not guilty or that you pled not guilty?

Here is information taken directly from five sources:

1) American Bar Association Journal 

On one side is John Chandler, a senior litigation partner at King & Spalding, who advocates “pled” despite the opinion of the editor of Black’s Law Dictionary. “I know, I know: Bryan Garner says that ‘pleaded’ is the ‘predominant form in American English,’ ” Chandler writes. “But does the guy listen to people talk? Nobody says ‘pleaded.’ ” The shorter form is also favored by readers of Above the Law (a legal website of news, insights, and opinions on law firms, lawyers, law school, law suits, judges and courts) responding to online polls, he argues, as well as the characters on Law & Order, an NBC television series.

On the other side is Brian Boone, a senior litigation associate at Alston & Bird. He labels Chandler’s “everybody says it” claim as hyperbole. Boone cites his own Westlaw search showing the U.S. Supreme Court has used “pleaded” in more than 3,000 opinions and “pled” in only 26 —and in some of those instances the court was quoting others. In addition, Boone says, “rock star” appeals judges Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook typically use “pleaded.”

2) Columbia Journalism Review

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.”

3) Fastcase.com

(Although not as well-known a source as the others, I appreciated the research-based information on this site.)

There’s been a lot of discussion on legal blogs and news sites over the last week or so about the correct past-tense form of plead. Does proper style mandate pleaded, and is it ever acceptable to use pled? There are good arguments on both sides, to be sure, but there’s plenty of that on the internet as it is, and we won’t expound on that here.

Having access to good search tools and a massive database, though, we can put all the bickering and pedantry aside and get a pretty good picture of how these contentious verb forms are actually used in the real world. And what the numbers tell us is pretty interesting.

It turns out pleaded is the clear favorite, mentioned in more than twice as many cases as pled. Different jurisdictions, though, vary fairly widely in their usages of the two words. Of the cases that include either of the words in question, the Federal Seventh Circuit uses pled in only 26 percent, whereas the Fourth Circuit uses it in 59 percent of its cases. The US Supreme Court is by far the most consistent, using pleaded almost 100 times more often than pled.

The three states with the greatest proportion of pled cases (Idaho, Montana, and Arizona) are, interestingly enough, all western states. The three states most adherent to the style manuals prescribing pleaded (Maine, Connecticut, and Massachusetts) are all located in New England.

A poll posted on the ABA Journal last week shows that 69 percent of respondents preferred pled to pleaded, but so far it looks like legal opinions haven’t caught up to public opinion.

4) Grammarist.com

Pleaded is the standard past tense and past participle of the verb plea. Pled has always been considered incorrect by people who make such judgments, but it is so common that we have to accept it as an alternative form.

Eighty-two confessed, while half a dozen others pled the Fifth Amendment, which protects people from being forced to incriminate themselves.
[Washington Post]

So too did the Miami-based accountant … who pled guilty to helping forge documents.
[Financial Times]

A Kelowna Mountie has pled guilty to a pair of charges stemming from a violent domestic dispute.
[Vancouver Sun]


5) Grammar Girl

Most sources say that the correct past tense is pleaded. Squiggly pleaded guilty.

Garner’s Modern American Usage, the AP Stylebook, and the Chicago Manual of Style all say to use pleaded. You should also use pleaded as the participle, as in Squiggly has pleaded guilty.

Some people do prefer pled, and the AP Stylebook calls it a colloquial past-tense form. Nevertheless, most lawyers use pleaded. For example, in a 2013 ABA Journal post, a senior litigation associate named Brian Boone reported doing a Westlaw search and finding that “the U.S. Supreme court has used pleaded in more than 3,000 opinions and pled in only 26.”

From the Ruthless Editor:

Now you know, Killer Tips readers! Most lawyers prefer pleaded. Case closed.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

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