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It is too a word

Against my better judgment, I weighed in on a minor issue on the American Copy Editors Society’s discussion board: the use of the word pled. What set me off was the label on the post, “Don’t tell me ‘pled’ is now becoming an actual word.”

I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone that pled is about to become an actual word. It has been an actual word in English for well above four centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a passage using it from Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Usage authorities such as Robert Burchfield and Bryan Garner — doesn’t anyone first look at a book anymore? — explain that pleaded is dominant in British English and that both pleaded and pled are in common use in American English.

So, on the first point, pled is in fact a word. It has a spelling and pronunciation, an etymology, a history of usage. Its meaning is recognized and understood by speakers of English. Xzzybbt is not a word. It is a random agglomeration of letters with no pronunciation, etymology or history beyond having been created at the beginning of this sentence. When editors say that something is “not a word,” they are using an imprecise and irritating shorthand to say that an actual word is not a standard usage or not to their taste.

This puts us in the range of choice. There are two current past-tense forms of to plead. Which is preferable? Those of us who have spent years enveloped in the hermeneutics of the Associated Press Stylebook — examining the microscopic changes announced in each year’s edition as avidly as Kremlin-watchers used to study the lineup of Soviet officials atop Lenin’s tomb on May Day — know that the AP prefers pleaded. Garner’s Modern American Usage agrees. There is a rational basis for the choice: pleaded more suitable for formal use, pled more colloquial.

This does not, however, explain the vigor with which some people denounce pled. One ACES post calls it an ugly-sounding word, though I can’t see that either pleaded or pled contributes much to euphony. (Should we prefer bleeded to bled?)

Ear is as annoying a word in editing as voice. By voice, a writer commonly refers to some maladroit individual turn of phrase that an editor of taste and backbone, assuming that any remain on the premises, would have excised from the first draft. By ear — “it doesn’t sound right; it sounds ugly” — a copy editor usually means, without further explanation or support, “I don’t like it.”

Don’t mistake me: An ear for the language is indispensable, particularly in the effort to achieve a conversational style and avoid cant, jargon and pretense. But “it doesn’t sound right” must be followed by a persuasive explanation. And an editor has to be on guard against the hazard that his or her ear has been corrupted by bad examples or unreliable guidance.

Ah, don’t start with me; you know how I get.


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:57 PM | | Comments (5)
        

Comments

"Xzzybbt is not a word."

Maybe, but it has a fine sound to it all the same.

Would we prefer that someone had 'breeded' rather than 'bred?" While 'tis true there are some for whom 'breeded' is nearer the point, bred is correct both linguistically and aesthetically.

Re: "doesn’t anyone first look at a book anymore?"

No, I don't think they do. I recently saw comments on a blog arguing that "till", used to mean "until", was not a word and should be written "'til", even though "till" has been around since the 12th century (according to my dictionary, anyway).

Too often it seems the modern ear remains deaf to the charms of these homely old words. Linguistic snobbery, perhaps?

It really is unfortunate that discussions about the suitability of various terms often end up invoking highly subjective notions like "ugly" or (in a recent case at my work) "grotesque." People who sling such terms around might have good and convincing reasons to not use a particular term, but when the name-calling starts, it becomes harder to focus on the objective, as it seems clear at that point that the discussion has strayed from the rational. :-( And in any event, as noted already several times, euphony is in the ear of the beholder.

Even worse, my local paper has used spinned rather than spun on occasion, and then tried to plead that it's just a personal choice, not a matter of correctness.

I admit to preferring pled. It sounds better to me, but I assume that's because it's what I became used to hearing early in life.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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