The Grammarphobia Blog

Guilt trips

Q: Many newscasters say a defendant has pleaded “innocent.” As a former prosecutor, this drives me up the wall. The correct expression is to plead “not guilty.” There is a major difference. One can be guilty of an offense but still found not guilty if the prosecutor cannot make the case.

A: In the early 1970s, when I got my first job as a newspaper reporter, I was told to refer to the plea or verdict as “innocent.” The reasoning was that I would be defaming the defendant if the word “not” were inadvertently dropped from “not guilty.” This was a longstanding rule at many newspapers.

By the time I became an editor at the New York Times in the early 1980s, the old rule had been discarded at many newspapers. The Times’s policy was (and still is) that one pleaded not guilty. The Times’s stylebook explains it this way: the defendant doesn’t have to prove his innocence; the state has to prove his guilt.

In the past, when correspondents filed dispatches by cable, telex, teletype, or radiotelegraph, the chance of losing a “not” in transmission may have been greater. Of course a lot of English gets mangled on computers these days.

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