Denver Bar Association
July 2013
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When Choosing Pleaded or Pled, Grammar Pitted Against Popular Usage

by Natalie West

S


ince law school, I’ve been engaged in what seems to be a never-ending debate over the use of "pleaded" versus "pled." For the record, I prefer pleaded. As a graduate of legal writing guru Bryan Garner’s alma mater—and his school of thought—I learned early on that pleaded is the correct past-tense form. According to Garner’s "A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage," pled is an "alternative past tense form to be avoided."

I generally like being grammatically correct, so I’ve used pleaded ever since. And, yet, I’m confronted almost daily with the use of pled by colleagues, which, as you might guess, leads to the aforementioned debate.

I’m not the only one engaging in this discussion. In January, the Daily Report published a kicky dialogue between two Atlanta attorneys sparring over the issue,1 which in turn spawned a host of similar debates and commentary around the Web.2 In fact, a simple Google search of "pleaded or pled" produced numerous links to articles and blogs weighing in on the merits of both, including a thoughtful discussion from the Columbia Journalism Review.3

So, what’s the verdict? Well, that depends.

For the grammar nerds out there who, like me, take great pride in being grammatically correct, use pleaded. Nearly every writing guide—legal or not—prescribes pleaded as the preferred form and counsels against the use of pled.4 Never mind that none provides any great explanation as to why pleaded is correct—the consensus is still clear. Indeed, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, even William Blackstone used pleaded.

If that doesn’t convince you, just look to the U.S. Supreme Court. As Brian Boone reported in the Daily Report, U.S. Supreme Court justices overwhelmingly prefer pleaded, which appears in more than 3,000 opinions, compared to a paltry 56 uses of pled.5 Following suit, federal judges in Colorado generally favor pleaded, as well, albeit by much closer margins. A Westlaw search of opinions from the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado over the last 10 years showed that pleaded appeared in 1,625 opinions, compared to 1,338 appearances of pled. A similar search of 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinions showed 6,195 hits for pleaded and only 4,701 hits for pled.

For those of you who eschew tradition and legalese—or who think that "pleaded just sounds ridiculous," as one of my closest friends says—you’re not alone. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that pled, once considered a chiefly dialectical form dating back to the 16th century, is now used in Scottish and American English (although it’s largely obsolete in British English). As for American lawyers, pled is clearly the preferred form. Three online polls published by the blog Above the Law and the American Bar Association show that lawyers consistently favor pled by significant margins: 57 percent responding to the 2011 Above the Law poll (though down from 62.5 percent who voted in a 2008 poll) and 69 percent in the 2013 ABA poll favored using pled. It appears most lawyers agree that pled just sounds better.

State court judges also use pled more often than not: A Westlaw search of Colorado appellate decisions in the last 10 years produced 374 hits for pled and 300 hits for pleaded. That result is mirrored by the rest of the nation’s judiciary, which as a whole appears to prefer pled by a similarly small margin.6 It’s safe to say that pled has achieved an acceptable place in modern discourse. Even Garner concedes that point.7

As for me? I’m sticking with pleaded. Pled may be more popular, but at least I’ll be "correct." D

 


1 Chandler and Boone, "War of the words: pleaded vs. pled," Daily Report (Jan. 15, 2013) at bit.ly/11xnChU.

2 See, e.g., Mickle, "Informally speaking, ‘pled’ is still all right," Daily Report (Jan. 31, 2013) at bit.ly/11pwN2O; bit.ly/10xU1zK (blog post dated Jan. 23, 2013); bit.ly/10Wj8gC (undated blog post).

3 See Jenkins, "Pleaded Guilty: A Modest Plea," Columbia Journalism Review, at bit.ly/17XpV1R.

4 See, e.g., Garner, "The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style" 262 (2d ed. 2006) (identifying "pleaded" as "the correct past tense"); "The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage" 263 (1st rev. ed.) (prescribing "pleaded," without comment); "The Associated Press Stylebook" 215 (2011); "The Chicago Manual of Style" (16th ed. 2010) ("Avoid pled.").

5 Boone reported that the Supreme Court used "pled" in 26 decisions. This author’s subsequent search showed the use of "pled" in 56 decisions.

6 Eugene Volokh, the law professor who publishes the blog "The Volokh Conspiracy," says a 2010 Westlaw search confirmed that "pled" gets more hits. See bit.ly/17lPbh8.

7 To be clear, Garner maintains that "pleaded is dominant and best used in legal writing." Garner, "The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style 262" (2d ed., 2006).

Natalie West

 

Natalie West is an associate in the Trial Group at Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP. Like Bryan Garner, she received her J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law in Austin, Texas. She may be reached at natalie.west@dgslaw.com.


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