Last week, we discussed a watershed moment in the English language: A major dictionary recognized in approval the use of “they” in the third person singular. For a lawyer who doesn’t like saying “his or her” in their legal blog all the time, now they can feel justified in using “they.”
But that wasn’t the only significant change that could impact how lawyers and marketers write legal blogs. Another significant development has a special place in every lawyer’s lexicon: The rise of the phrase “pled guilty.”
The Public Prefers “Pled Guilty,” But Not By Much
Every lawyer has had a conversation – often with a non-lawyer – that has paused after someone used the word “pled” or “pleaded” right before the word “guilty.”
“Pleaded” sounds somehow off. But lots of people are aware that “pled” is supposedly wrong.
Informal surveys and studies have abounded in the legal field about the common usage to figure out which form was more widely accepted.
The publication Above the Law conducted a reader survey back in 2011, asking “what is your preferred past tense form of the verb ‘plead’?”
Focusing more on the legal field, Eugene Volokh did a quick Westlaw search for documents that used the phrases “pled guilty” and “pleaded guilty.” The results:
Both suggest a subtle tilt towards using the verb form “pled.”
Literary Gatekeepers Insist the Correct Form is “Pleaded”
Editors and style guides, though, have long insisted that “pled guilty” is incorrect. The AP Stylebook has been especially adamant:
AP Style tip: It’s plead, pleaded, pleading. Do not use the colloquial past tense form, pled.
— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) April 16, 2015
It’s plead, pleaded, pleading. AP style advises against using the colloquial past tense form, pled.
— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) August 22, 2018
The Chicago Manual of Style, in its lengthy glossary of problematic words and phrases, agrees that writers should “avoid pled.”
The AP Stylebook is Buckling Under Pressure
A little over a week ago, though, the AP Stylebook made an announcement. In an email to its online subscribers, editors pointed out an update to its “pleaded guilty” entry: The Stylebook no longer advised against using the “colloquial” word “pled.”
A clarification on the change we announced in our Stylebook Online subscriber email this week:
Our style remains “pleaded” for the past tense of “plead.” We simply deleted the additional part of the entry that previously referred to the “colloquial” word “pled.”
— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) December 12, 2019
While the retraction is a landmark step towards an outright acceptance of “pled guilty,” the AP’s tweets show a slow walk back. Back in 2015, they firmly stated “do not use the colloquial past test form, pled.” In 2018, they were advising against it. Now, they’re no longer advising against it, though they still think “pleaded” is proper.
What this Means for Your Legal Blog
The AP’s evolving stance actually adds some ambiguity to legal blogging. The reality is that your choice of form doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Around half of the public uses one form, while the other half uses the other, and editors are becoming less judgmental. If there’s one takeaway, it’s that you shouldn’t be sweating over it.