The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “proven” innocent or guilty?

Q: What do you think about “proven” as a past participle? A lot of people insist that it’s an adjective and “proved” is the participle. However, the participial use of “proven” was certainly accepted in the past (“innocent until proven guilty”).

A: Both “proved” and “proven” are standard English, whether as an adjective or as the past participle of “prove.” The choice is a matter of preference rather than right or wrong.

In American English, “proven” is clearly more common as the adjective before a noun: “This is a proven remedy” … “She’s considered a proven talent.”

As for the past participle, until relatively recently “proved” was more common: “It has been proved” … “She had proved unworthy” … “I have proved that my theory works.”

But “proven” has made rapid gains as a past participle and is now about even with “proved” as the American preference.

As you point out, “proven” has a long history as a past participle in certain legal language: “A person is innocent until proven guilty” … “The verdict was not proven.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says “proven” began life as the past participle of preven, the usual Middle English spelling of the word we now spell as “prove.”

Proven survived in and descends to us from Scottish English,” the usage guide adds. “It apparently first established itself in legal use and has been slowly working its way into literary and general use.”

As for the choice between “proved” or “proven,” Merriam-Webster’s says: “Both forms are standard now.”

The Oxford English Dictionary also notes that the use of “proven” as both a participle and as an adjective originated in Scottish English.

And in Scots Law (the legal system in Scotland), the OED says, “the verdict ‘Not proven’ is admitted, besides ‘Guilty’ and ‘Not guilty,’ in criminal trials.”

A usage note in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says: “Surveys made some 50 or 60 years ago indicated that proved was about four times as frequent as proven. But our evidence from the last 30 or 35 years shows this no longer to be the case.”

“As a past participle proven is now about as frequent as proved in all contexts,” the usage note adds. “As an attributive adjective (‘proved or proven gas reserves’) proven is much more common than proved.”

Case closed!

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