The Word Guy: In formal prose, rely on ‘pleaded,’ not ‘pled’
Question: I recently read an article in my daily newspaper about a court defendant who “pleaded” guilty to a crime. I have always thought the past tense is “pled.” Which is correct, or are both of them acceptable?
— Janice Smith, Greensburg
Answer: Both are standard in American English, although some purists insist on “pleaded.”
“Pled,” the past tense form of “plead,” is actually a linguistic fossil. The British always have used “pleaded,” but during the 1500s, the Scots started using the dialectical term “pled.”
So, when large numbers of Scots-Irish immigrated to the western areas of Britain’s North American colonies during the early 1700s, they toted “pled” with them — a verbal souvenir of the Old Country. That’s why “pled” continues to flourish in the United States but not in England, where “pleaded” still prevails.
Some American usage experts have pleaded their case for “pleaded.” The Associated Press Stylebook, for instance, states simply: “Do not use the colloquial past tense form, ‘pled.’”
I wouldn’t go that far, but in formal prose, use “pleaded,” not “pled.”
Q: Why does “spell” mean a) writing words correctly, b) a period of time and c) an act of magic?
— Nancy Rossi, Hartford
A: So you’re asking me to spell words for a spell to cast a spell over my readers? Glad to.
The many meanings of “spell” exemplify the propensity of English to homogenize similar-sounding words into the same spelling, just as we channel the names “Michael,” “Mikhail” and “Micah” into “Mike.”
The letter-related “spell” derives from the Old English “spell,” meaning “to signify,” because letters signify sounds and meanings. (This original definition survives in sentences such as “This drought spells trouble.”)
The magical “spell” comes from the Old High German “spel,” meaning “talk,” because casting a spell usually involves saying words, such as an incantation.
The time-related “spell” evolved from the Middle English “spale,” meaning “substitute.” The first meaning of this “spell” was a shift of workers; later it came to mean, successively, “one’s turn at work” and “a period of time spent at work.”
When I first read Stephen Crane’s compelling short story “The Open Boat,” I was unfamiliar with the verb “spell,” meaning “to take over someone’s duties.” So, when one sailor, exhausted from rowing, asked another, “Can you spell me?” I half-expected the reply to be, “Yes. ‘Me’ is spelled ‘M-E.’”