A usage question for all you legal types. In an article about a misused government informant, I came across this line: “prosecutors are asking a federal judge to dismiss charges including conspiracy and cocaine trafficking against most of the defendants, even some who pleaded guilty.” And, for some reason, that particular use of pleaded made me realize I’ve been uneasy about the past forms of the verb to plead for a while now.
No dictionary entirely settles the point about what a publication should use today. The more descriptive sources list pled as the primary form in the United States. The more prescriptive name it an American (and Scottish) colloquialism that the correct pleaded should abolish.
On grammatical questions, I tend to be a prescriptive Americanist. I like the old school-marm distinctions: Children are reared, while crops are raised; clothes are hung on the clothes-line, while people are hanged on the gallows. But I reckon I ain’t about to say pavement when I mean sidewalk, autumn when I mean fall, or any other of them fancy-pants Latinisms the British use. The fact that in England pleaded is the sole correct form don’t carry much weight for the likes of me.
You have to admit, however, that there’s something more etymologically consistent about pleaded. Of the long-e verbs in English form that form weak past tenses simply by adding an -ed on the end, some are Germanic in origin (bead, knead, weed, etc.) and some are French Latinate (the whole family of -cede verbs, for instance). But all the long-e verbs that form strong past tenses by shortening the vowel are Germanic: feed becomes fed, lead becomes led, and bleed becomes bled, with read and breed galloping along beside.
All the long-e verbs, that is, except plead—which stands as a French-derived verb with a Germanic past form if we allow pled.
Still, there’s something that sounds prissy and forced about pleaded that puts my back up, particularly when, as in legal contexts, it takes a direct object: He pleaded guilty.
More, it adds to the general decline of the strong forms of past tenses, as irregular verbs get forced into greater regularity. The pattern is common in English, but we’re in the midst of a great linguistic push right now that probably ought to be resisted. (Try Nexis searches for breeded or waked, if you want some examples.) The increasing replacement of shone with shined has particularly begun to annoy me.
Add it all up, and isn’t pled preferable to pleaded? It’s shorter, it’s a strong irregular form in a context of increasing weak regularity, and it’s distinctively American. What more do you want from a verb?