April 19, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: plead, pleaded, and pled & using numbers

Posted in number/numeral, numbers and numerals, plead/pled/pleaded at 6:02 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Pled, pleaded, or plead (pronounced pled)

A reader writes:

Thank you for the wonderful weekly discussion and tips for using our language in the most correct and clearest manner possible!

I was hoping you would discuss the use of the word “plea.”  Our television reporters here in Missoula regularly use the past tense “pleaded” when referring to a guilty plea at a court hearing. As in “so and so pleaded guilty in justice court today to …misuse of the language.”  His sentence following his guilty plea consisted of a 500 word essay on the importance of clear communication.

I think the correct use would be “he plead guilty to….misuse of the language.”  To my mind pleaded refers to the argument phase of the proceeding, as in “he pleaded his case  of mitigating circumstance before a  jury of his peers.” And plead refers to the final statement.

Do I have this correct?

This was interesting to research, because I would have said that when used in the legal sense, the past tense of plead is pled, and when used to refer to begging or trying a case, the past tense of plead is pleaded.

He pled guilty to the crime of arson.

He pleaded with her not to leave.   He pleaded his case before the jury.

But I would have been hopelessly out of date. We’ve talked, before, about how language is an evolving living thing, something to marvel. The verb, plead, is a good example of this evolution.

[NOTE: Plead (pronounced pled) is rarely, if ever, used as the past tense of plead (pronounced pleed), so really this is a discussion of pleaded versus pled.]

While pled was once considered standard (and is still included as a secondary usage in some dictionaries), it is generally considered to be a colloquialism these days. The preferred past tense of  plead is pleaded.

The Chicago Manual of Style lists these words in its entertaining section on “Good usage versus common usage.’ Pleaded, it says is correct, and pled is common and should be avoided.

I checked on some other words to see if this change is occurring everywhere.

Lighted or lit—both words are both considered standard usage, and they are exchangeable. In a ‘Google fight,’ lit got more than 24 million hits compared to lighted’s measly two and one-half million.

Leaped or leapt—again, both are considered standard although leaped has become more popular in recent years according to Garner. Google fight results: leapt with 619,000 hits and leaped with 400,000.

Creeped or crept—this is another case where both words are considered standard but where creeped is quickly becoming  more common. Google fight results: crept with three-quarters of a million vs. creeped with just one-quarter million.

For fun, I ran a Google fight for pleaded and pled, and the transition has definitely occurred with more than two million hits for pleaded vs. only one-half million for pled.

Interestingly, the only word that was marked as wrong by Word’s spellchecker is creeped. I added it to Word’s dictionary, and I am a happy camper now.

Tip 2: Numbers and numerals

A reader writes:

Is there a general rule for use of numbers in documents?  I used to write out numbers under twenty but it seems inappropriate if I have a wide variety of numbers that are both above and below twenty.  I am guessing the rules are different for more humanities-based writing than science-based writing.  I assume you just need to follow document rules and be consistent.  But I wondered nonetheless.

Always a popular topic—writing about numbers and numerals never gets old. I have to say from the get-go that this is one of those areas where there are no hard and fast rules, and we rely, in large part, on styles. That being said, there are two styles that apply to most of our writing, and I will review both: the general style used by many, if not most, to get through the day and the American Medical Association (AMA) style used for writing for the many, many biomedical journals that use the AMA style. I’ll provide reminders of both styles, but first, I thought we’d review some definitions.

What’s the difference between a number and a numeral?

Number is a concept or idea, and a numeral is what we use to express it—the symbol or word. Seven, 7 and VII are all numerals depicting the number—seven. You can’t actually see the number seven, but you can represent it by the symbols or words, above, or by  other representations such as a pile of seven objects, seven blocks, seven balls, etc. To be honest, the distinction between numeral and number is not known to or used by many people, so if you have difficulty with this, I wouldn’t worry about it. Just an interesting bit of lore.

Generally, we spell out numbers under 10 and use numerals for 10 and up.

[NOTE: The Chicago Manual of Style promotes spelling out all numbers up to 100 if the writing is not technical or scientific, but for our writing, I would stick to the under ten rule.]

This is where AMA style differs. In AMA style, almost all numbers are expressed as numerals and are not spelled out. So even numbers under ten are expressed as numerals.

From the style guide:

PRINTED FROM AMA Manual of Style (www.amamanualofstyle.com)
© American Medical Association, 2009-2012. All Rights Reserved

 19 Numbers and Percentages

Abstract: Any policy on the use of numbers in text must take into account the reader’s impression that numbers written as numerals (symbols) appear to emphasize quantity more strongly than numbers spelled out as words. Because numerals convey quantity more efficiently than spelled-out numbers, they are generally preferable in technical writing. In literary writing, by contrast, spelled-out numbers may be more compatible with style. Despite these general principles, usage may appear inconsistent when a publication chooses to use numerals in some instances and words in others. The guidelines outlined in this section attempt to reduce these inconsistencies and avoid use of numerals that may be jarring to the reader. In situations that are not governed by these guidelines, common sense and editorial judgment should prevail.

 19.1 Use of Numerals.

 In scientific writing, numerals are used to express numbers in most circumstances.

 Exceptions are the following:

  • Numbers that begin a sentence, title, subtitle, or heading
  • Common fractions
  • Accepted usage such as idiomatic expressions and numbers used as pronouns
  • Other uses of “one” in running text
  • Ordinals first through ninth
  • Numbers spelled out in quotes or published titles.

Note the following examples of numerals in text:

  • The relative risk of exposed individuals was nearly 3 times that of the controls.
  • In the second phase of the study, 3 of the investigators administered the 5 tests to the 7 remaining subjects. The test scores showed a 2- to 2.4-fold improvement over those of the first phase.
  • In 2 of the 17 patients in whom both ears were tested, we were unable to obtain responses from either ear. While testing patient 3, we experienced technical problems consisting of unmanageable electrical artifacts.
  • Groups 1 and 2 were similar in terms of demographic and clinical characteristics (Table 1). Table 2 lists the 4 tests that were performed.
  •           A 3-member committee from the Food and Drug Administration visited the researchers.

Okay, so that is the main difference. For AMA style, you use numerals instead of spelling out the numbers under ten.

So what are some of the other conventions?

[NOTE: I say conventions because there are not really rules—just styles.]

  • Spell out a number that begins a sentence (this is true for both the general and AMA styles).
  • Hyphenate fractions (e.g., one-third, three-quarters).
  • Use commas in numerals higher than 999 (e.g., 1,000; 423,638).
  • When using rounded numbers, spell out the amount (e.g., about 50 million).
  • Don’t put an apostrophe before the final s when referring to decades (e.g.,  ‘70s , 1980s, ‘90s, ‘00s).
  • Hyphenate compound numbers (e.g., forty-six, twenty-two).
  • Be consistent within categories (e.g., 12 leopards arrived, and 3 leopards left or two knives were sharpened and six knives remained in the drawer).

There are lots of other conventions but these are good for a start. You can find others in the associated pages.


  1. elevatedtaste said,

    Hello! I am editing a scientific article that contains the phrase, “…so the question would be why is this group different.” What is the proper punctuation here? A comma after “be” seems okay but not proper in terms of there being a complete phrase following. A comma, quotes, and capital “Why” seems overly formal. A colon? Also, when referring to patients, I am inclined to change “that” to “who,” as in “patients who received medication.” Is this correct?

    • dlseltzer said,

      You can do a number of things here that are considered correct by different stylebooks.

      So the question would be: “why is this book different?”

      So the question would be “Why is this book different?”

      So the question would be, why is this book different?

      So the question would be, Why is this book different?

      So the question would be: why is this book different?

      So the question would be: Why is this book different?

      I like the second one which is also AMA style. It’s very clear and concise. But, honestly, any are okay.

  2. DaCArLLC said,

    The grammar in this lesson or discussion was almost perfect until the term “any ARE okay” ended the discussion when in fact the word “any” implies “one” of a larger number of things or persons. Based on the English I was taught “any IS okay” implying that “any” is one of “many”.

    • dlseltzer said,

      Any can be singular or plural depending on the context.

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