Word Matters Podcast

Is it 'pled' or 'pleaded'?

Word Matters, Episode 46

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It's one of the biggest questions we get: Is there one "correct" past tense of the verb 'plead'? We'll get into its various legalities. Also: why do some technical words get used in general language, while others are forever stuck in their specific lanes?

Download the episode here.


(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clips)

Emily Brewster: Some words make it outside of the realm of specialized language and others do not.

Peter Sokolowski: Usage is one thing. Legal usage might be something else.

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: when technical terms do or don't enter the common lexicon. And, pleading in the past tense. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary's vantage point.

A passing glance at English vocabulary will reveal a wealth of words that have gone from a highly specific, technical meaning to broader figurative use. One can diagnose a problem without earning the credentials to make a medical diagnosis. And debacles these days, typically, don't involve the breaking up of river ice. How is it that some specialized words slip into general use and others remain lodged in their particular spheres of influence? I'll investigate.

Gary writes to us, "why is it that some words from medicine make it into the mainstream language, but the rest are only used in healthcare? There are several words that are so descriptive and can be applied in other situations like anastomosis. Why don't we use it to describe a situation of a path connecting two roads or a canal connecting bodies of water? Is there any reason why physicians have managed to hold onto these very specific terms, which could make language and description easier for the layman? Or at least more fun."

I think this is an excellent question. For everyone's edification, mine included, because I did not know the word anastomosis before reading Gary's question, we define this term as "the union of parts or branches as of streams, blood vessels, or leaf veins, so as to intercommunicate or interconnect." And also a product of anastomosis, network, as a synonym of the word network. So why does a really excellent word like anastomosis stay in the realm of very specialized language instead of traveling outside that realm? And I don't really have a good answer for this. Some words make it outside of the realm of specialized language and others do not. I think about in the past year, how we have all learned some specialized medical terms because they have suddenly become ubiquitous. So PPE is not really a new term, right? But we all now have been talking about PPE or were a lot more a year ago. And I think that there are plenty of other terms that have never made it into the language of the layperson, but that only exist in the language of specialists. And I think the answer for why is just that the writers of the world have not noticed.

Ammon Shea: Also, sometimes words try to make it out and they get pushed back or people scold them. Like aggravate is a classic example. Usage guides have long said that aggravate should be restricted to "make worse," particularly of symptoms, as opposed to "annoy." And this is less of a thing than it used to be. And it never really made sense anyway, since the original meaning of aggravate was to "weigh down with weight." It comes from gravare, weight. But for a long time, when it started to drift away from medicine or medical use, people would wag their fingers at it and say it's a bad word, bad word.

Emily Brewster: Right, but it proved too useful because we have latched onto it.

Ammon Shea: Too many things are aggravating out there to restrict it to doctors.

Emily Brewster: Exactly.

Neil Serven: There's also this bridge of understanding that has to happen. Some of the medical language is just very complex and it's about a subject that can be very complex. And even if you're trying to write it to an audience in a way that is understandable, it's not always going to be grasped in a way that we can then apply it to more general use. So sometimes you need a kind of a bridge-like metaphor or some way of needing to apply that more technical concept to something that's in the general world. The word myopia for near-sightedness, we understand now what myopic means, but I used to be simply a term used by ophthalmologists. And then once the idea of becoming figuratively near-sighted and not seeing the forest for the trees or what have you became something that we referred to in language, myopic became a useful word for that. And it needed that necessity relayed for that to happen. And for myopic to become this other word apart from referring to the medicine of the eye.

Emily Brewster: I was going to make the point that anastomosis has a hurdle to gain extended metaphorical use because its meaning is not really transparent just by looking at it. If you don't have an understanding of what this word means, you can't really piece it together. Although with the right context, you certainly could. But the same is also true of myopia. And yet myopic is doing quite fine in kind of general discourse.

Neil Serven: Yes. Something have had to have happened in the study of, I guess, nearsightedness or myopia that it caught on with the general populace. And I don't know what that was.

Emily Brewster: Well, many more of us are myopic literally.

Neil Serven: True.

Emily Brewster: Then maybe we think about anastomosis.

Ammon Shea: I think one of the things that's funny about medical words is that we can never really tell what's going to happen and to make them be brought into the mainstream and in lexicographic circles of course, one of the most famous stories and by famous, I mean literally dozens of people have heard this story, was when the Oxford English Dictionary left out the word appendicitis. This is in the late 19th century when they were first doing that section of the alphabet and James Murray, the editor in chief had excellent authorities telling him don't even bother. He wrote to a number of professors. He wrote to the head of surgery at Oxford College because he was an inveterate letter writer. He was writing letters constantly, had dozens, if not hundreds of letters coming in every day asking about, cause I mean, this is a broad range in dictionary. They're covering incredibly obscure words. Should this go in or not? And almost everybody, I think assured him, don't worry about appendicitis. People are not going to be looking it up. And then of course, about ten years later, the coronation of Edward the seventh was delayed for two or three weeks because he came down with appendicitis, suddenly appendicitis was front page word.

Peter Sokolowski: And a whole country was looking it up presumably.

Ammon Shea: Not just the country, but the world was looking it up and finding that it was not in the OED. And of course this is not the OED's fault and they put it in later on, it made it in there. And now it's a very common word at the time though. It was entirely reasonable to think we don't need some clue to this.

Peter Sokolowski: Only specialists needed this term. I think that betrays one other little thing, which is an idea of what a dictionary is that is to say that those medical consultants who are men of science probably thought that this dictionary project was purely a humanities project, that the language of literature and the Bible is what they would cover, but not the professional language, the technical language, the medical language that they were familiar with. It took a while for people to understand dictionaries as places where the language of plumbing and the language of dentistry would also be, not just the language of literature.

Ammon Shea: I would argue that's still going on today though. And there are all kinds of fields that we overlook either because we don't have the resources the time or the knowledge to really plumb` them.

Emily Brewster: We have to make a determination that a term is relevant for a general use dictionary. There are specialized dictionaries for different spheres of knowledge, but a general use dictionary doesn't aim to cover, well, it does aim to cover what a coronation is going to be delayed by, that's for sure. Sure.

Peter Sokolowski: So that medical term became a kind of a public news item. We always say the current active vocabulary of American English is our goal for coverage. And that does not include very abstruse technical terms, but in this case, it moved from the technical to the kind of public sphere.

Neil Serven: Goes to Emily's point where, how she mentioned the past year we've come to learn all these other new medical terms that we didn't need to know before.

Peter Sokolowski: Like contact tracing.

Neil Serven: Contact tracing. I could not have told you two years ago what a comorbidity was.

Peter Sokolowski: Or fomites.

Neil Serven: Fomites. So you've got all these other terms that have just become into our parlance because we needed them because we needed to talk about them ourselves. And it's not limited to the jargon of medicine, not limited to medical journals or the kind of talk that doesn't even need to happen to a patient necessarily. It's now become a social good to know these words. And so it's changed how we thought about them, what our understanding of them, and that's going to continue to happen in different ways.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure and sometimes the words themselves changed. So thinking back to the beginnings of the Oxford English Dictionary in the late 1800s, that's when another term was used in a medical sense, the term brainstorm. And we don't think of it as a medical today, but our 1934 edition defines brainstorm as "a violent transient mental derangement manifested in a maniacal outburst; popularly, any transitory agitation or confusion of mind." So it basically meant "insanity," right? The Funk and Wagnalls dictionary of 1913, defined it as "impulsive insanity." And yet we think of the term brainstorm today as meaning sort of the sudden onset of an idea, which traces back to a sudden bright idea, the 1920s or so, and brainstorming as a kind of a business term from the 1950s. So this is a word that has been forgotten in its original use. I remember it's in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories in the "fit of insanity" meaning, but now we think of brainstorming as something else completely. So it's a term that went from the kind of medical diagnostic language to the sort of popular idea of a sudden bright idea.

Emily Brewster: This makes me think too about just the vast riches there are to be had in technical vocabulary and how it can be expanded and used in, metaphorically, in ways there's just so much there. So I really like the word lanuginous. It's from botany. It means "fuzzy," basically. Being covered in soft furs. Infants are often born with lanugo, which is a related word. That means like a soft downy hair. If you ever touched the leaves of mullein, for example, they are lanuginous. I would really liked to see the lanuginous just expanded into more general use.

Ammon Shea: And while we're on the technical botanical terms, I would offer up marcescent, which is of a plant part, it means "withered or withering without falling off." I felt like it really rang true for a lot of people during the pandemic year. A lot of people, whether they realize it or not felt terribly marcescent, like they had weathered, but they were somehow still clinging on.

Emily Brewster: That's a good one. How do you spell it?

Speaker 3: M-A-R-C-E-S-C-E-N-T.

Emily Brewster: Oh yeah. That's a good one. Yeah. Another one I like is nidification. Nidus means "nest" in Latin and nidification is the making of a nest. I would really like to see the use of the word nidification in these settings.

Peter Sokolowski: We added the word cocooning to the dictionary in a similar meaning.

Emily Brewster: That is one that has made the transition.

Peter Sokolowski: To a butterfly.

Emily Brewster: (laughing) That's right. Notification

Ammon Shea: Nidification's just got to be a couple of years behind.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, definitely. You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break to tackle the pleaded/pled conundrum. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media visit, the NEPM Podcast Hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: If you enjoy Word Matters, check out the Science Diction podcast from the producers of public radio's Science Friday. It's a podcast about words and the science behind them. On a recent episode, "Language Evolves," Peter and I talk with Johanna Mayer about words born out of mistakes. That's Science Diction, available wherever you get your podcasts.

One thing we at Merriam-Webster can always count on is that with every high profile court case, there will come an increase in the number of people looking for the answer to this important question: is the past tense of plead pleaded or pled?. Here's Peter Sokolowski with the not-so-simple answer.

Peter Sokolovski: We have a letter from Brian who writes "I'm an attorney. While I don't practice criminal defense law, criminal convictions do play some role in my practice of immigration law. I was wondering if you could do a deep dive on pled guilty and pleaded guilty, as I've seen both used interchangeably and there doesn't seem to be a consensus among attorneys on which one is correct." And that's a really good question because this is about usage, but usage is one thing. Legal usage might be something else, but pled or plead comes from that same class of verbs as other words like read and read, bleed and bled, lead and led, feed and fed. There is a group of words that are conjugated in this way, but not all of them have competing forms. It just so happens that this one has a couple of competing forms because the past tense plead, pled is sometimes spelled P-L-E-D. It's also sometimes spelled P-L-E-A-D like read and read, which is very confusing for a lot of people. Fed and led are spelled with just a single E for that short vowel, like pled is normally seen, but pleaded as a competing form does exist. And it turns out it's more frequently found. Pleaded is in fact, more frequently found even in legal use in the United States. So pleaded guilty for example is completely standard. And it turns out that legal usage advisors, including Bryan Garner, who is not just a lawyer and a consultant on legal language, but of course, A lexicographer and a usage maven, he argues strongly that pleaded should be the preferred use for lawyers.

Ammon Shea: We see this word spike every time somebody of note pleads guilty.

Neil Serven: Or pleads innocent.

Ammon Shea: Right, pleads innocent. Pleads anything.

Emily Brewster: And there's no real justification for preferring one over the other, is there? Other than what is established, that's primarily what we look at. And I think that's what Garner looks at also.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. And a little bit more of the background here is that pleaded became the dominant form in British English, but pled was used in Scottish English, which is likely how it came to American English. And in the late 19th and early 20th centuries pled was attacked by American usage commentators perhaps because it was not used in good British usage. And though it's still sometimes criticized it's fully respectable today, but pleaded is the more common form. It's just interesting that this happens to be a verb that's competing with itself.

Emily Brewster: I think a point that we haven't addressed yet is that English does not have very many verbs with competing past tense forms. For the most part, if the past tense of a word like drink is drank, you don't really hear drinked. You know, so it's really unusual for a verb to have two competing forms and for people to hear both forms being used by people who are clearly skilled users of the language. So in the most formal contexts, we hear pleaded and we hear pled spoken by professional speakers of various stripes.

Neil Serven: And I think the ones that you do here, like sneaked and snuck, as we mentioned, have this sort of conflict about them. Some people do not accept that other form. It's not this case where both forms are so standard and common and there isn't this like widespread objection to one or the other. Some people do find pleaded more appropriate in some contexts than pled, but it's not this outrage that snuck generates. Some people just completely abolish it from their language. It seems to speak to how verbs are learned. They just kind of arise so naturally in our vocabulary. And that we understand that when we learn irregular forms, that they're not a special E-D ending, it sticks with us. Sometimes we might learn the wrong one. I remember as a child saying brang, instead of bringing until I was corrected to say brought, but once I did, that was it. And the idea of bringed was never part of my vocabulary so I don't think it never occurred to me. So it sort of speaks to how language is acquired.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Ammon Shea: I have to admit that I used to find it so charming when my son, when he was little would screw this up, I never corrected him. And I had this hope that he would continue to saying things like "you shouldn't have doed that" instead of "you shouldn't have done that." And of course he just changed speaking correctly, even without any guidance from me. I mean, of course.

Neil Serven: Something ruined him.

Ammon Shea: Somebody else ruined him.

Peter Sokolowski: But language is a habit. You acquire the habit. That's what it is. And English is unusually difficult already because of these irregular forms. But then with these competing forms, it's a tricky thing.

Emily Brewster: Thank you to all who have written to us. If you have a question or comment, email us, at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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