Prescriptivist’s Corner: Pleading Your Case

To plead was originally in the class of verbs, along with read, speed, lead, and feed, that took an irregular past tense and past participle, pled. The irregular form has a history dating back to the 16th century. Competing with this past tense was the regular form pleaded, as in “he pleaded not guilty.” The regular form won out in England, and pled retreated to Scotland where it became the standard past tense in Scottish law. It then made its way to America, probably through Scottish immigration, where it coexists with pleaded.

Beginning in the late-19th century, American grammarians started attacking the irregular form, pled, presumably because it was not in use in England. They were largely successful in legal and journalistic circles and pleaded is the dominant form in America, but pled continues to survive in general US usage and lately is making inroads into the courts and newspapers.

While it’s not strictly improper, pled is rarely used by lawyers and journalists. Using pled in one’s own speech is an indicator that one is not well versed in the law. As such, it should be avoided. (Others would argue the opposite—that being noticed as not being a lawyer would be a good thing.)

A bigger problem is the preposition that follows the plea. One pleads to a charge. “He pleaded not guilty to murder” is correct. “He pleaded not guilty of murder” is not. Of should not be used with the verb plead, although “he is not guilty of murder” is grammatically correct.

And to confuse things further, technically one cannot plead innocence. In law, one pleads either guilty or not guilty. This, however, is a distinction that is best left to the lawyers. Plead innocent is sometimes used for fear the not in not guilty might be dropped accidentally. So the rule of thumb is when the judge asks for your plea, you say either “guilty” or “not guilty.” At other times you can say plead innocent to avoid any misunderstanding.

And by the definition of plea, which means to make one’s case, one cannot actually plead guilty. “Guilty” isn’t a plea; it’s a confession. Blackstone, in his 1769 Commentaries on the Laws of England never uses the phrase plead guilty. But this last is a lost cause. No one seriously makes this distinction anymore.

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