The Grammarphobia Blog

Plea agreement

Q: Which is correct: “plead” or “pleaded” guilty? I hear these used interchangeably on the evening news. What’s up wid dat?

A: If newscasters are using “plead” and “pleaded” interchangeably, they’re guilty of poor grammar and won’t be able to cop a plea with me.

I suspect, though, that you’re hearing “pled” and “pleaded” used interchangeably. Each of these usages is legitimate.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists both “pleaded” and “pled” (in that order) as the past tense and past participle of the verb “plead.”

So you could say a scofflaw “pleaded guilty” or “pled guilty” and be correct either way, though the first is the more common form these days.

Garner’s Modern American Usage also says that “pleaded” is the predominant form. This is true in both American and British English.

In legal terminology, though, “pled” is a common variant in the US (not in Britain), according to the Garner’s usage guide. So it’s quite common to say of an American perp that he “pled guilty” or “has pled guilty.”

The author of the usage guide, Bryan A. Garner, should know, since he’s both a lawyer and a writer on usage! He says “pled” dates from the 16th century (even though it’s now all but obsolete in England).

Outside of courtroom pleadings, “pled” is uncommon even in the US. We might say a child “pleaded for a cookie,” but rarely that a child “pled for a cookie.”

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