Column: How do you plead?


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

I’m sure pleats will eventually come back into style. I still remember the pleated khakis I wore to church in the mid-1990s. My Dockers brand double-pleated pants complemented my penny loafers to perfection in order to create that “nice-Baptist-guy-all-the-girls-just-want-to-be-friends-with” look I was going for. When pleats became passe, I traded my Dockers for blue jeans, much to my parents’ chagrin.

Today, I’m not talking about pleats. I’m talking about the words pleaded and pled. With high-profile political court cases in the news (and perhaps more to come in the near future), I thought it would be a great time to brush up on the different ways people claim their innocence while under oath.

Back in December, former personal lawyer to President Trump Michael Cohen said, “I take full responsibility for each act that I pled guilty to — the personal ones to me and those involving the president of the United States of America.” Yet, at the end of January, a New York Times article led with this line: “President Trump’s longtime adviser Roger J. Stone Jr. pleaded not guilty on Tuesday…”

Is it possible both usages are correct? If the past tense of “lead” is “led,” and if “bleed” becomes “bled,” shouldn’t the past tense of “plead” be “pled?” Not so fast! What about “bleat” and “bleated” or “knead” and “kneaded?” There’s no pattern to this word construction, so let’s seek an expert opinion. According to the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, “pleaded” is always the acceptable past tense form of “plead.” They assert that “pled” is considered a colloquialism, which is a really nice way of saying “bless your heart, you don’t know any better.”

When it comes down to it, “pled” isn’t incorrect, but it’s certainly losing in the popularity polls. According to Google Books’ Ngram Viewer, pled has gained considerable popularity in recent years when it comes to appearances in books, but pleaded still outpaces pled by a steep margin. So, while AP and Chicago Manual of Style would like you to believe that “pled” = “dead,” people like Michael Cohen use “pled” perhaps more often than we think. And, if the federal investigators keep handing out subpoenas, we’ll all be paying attention to how each individual pleads (and also if his/her pants have pleats).