Saturday, March 25, 2017

Piece Out

Back for a few more notes on grammar and spelling:


1. Please know that the past tense of lead is led.

Wrong:
LeBron James lead the Cavaliers through a relatively stress-free fourth quarter on the way to the win. (Sports Daily, December 2016)
Fixed:
LeBron James led the Cavaliers through a relatively stress-free fourth quarter on the way to the win.


2. The preferred past tense of plead is pleaded.

Bad:
When arraigned Friday morning Goff plead not guilty and was assigned a public defender. Shortly before 1:30, through a second public defender, he plead guilty and was sentenced to 12 months in the Arkansas Department of Correction. (Booneville Democrat, March 2017)
Best:
When arraigned Friday morning Goff pleaded not guilty and was assigned a public defender. Shortly before 1:30, through a second public defender, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 months in the Arkansas Department of Correction.
My American Heritage Fourth Edition (2000) also lists pled as an acceptable spelling of the past tense.

Unfortunately, I see from the online version that the Fifth Edition now lists plead is an acceptable spelling of the past tense. My advice though is not to use that spelling. For one thing, it's inconsiderate writing—you'll trip up some fraction of your readers when they mistakenly read plead as present-tense the first time through.

I do think pled is fine, though according to the American Heritage entry linked above, the usage panel for the Fifth Edition prefers pleaded to pled by a wide margin.

And I see that the usage note doesn't even address plead as a past-tense spelling. I suspect that's because zero percent of the panel would find this spelling acceptable.

Although plead as a past-tense spelling is apparently widespread enough to be listed in the dictionary, I don't think it is used very often in high-status writing. Anecdotally, I find several thousand hits for a google search of "He pleaded guilty" on nytimes.com, but only about a hundred hits for "He pled guilty" or "He plead guilty." A quick scan suggests that the instances of "He plead guilty" tend to come from complicated constructions ("...it was required that he plead guilty...."), or from direct quotes of speech, or from internet comments.

Bottom line: use pleaded, or use pled if you prefer, but don't use plead because you might trip up your readers and/or come across like an internet commenter.


3. Don't hand-wave with around.

Lazy:
The committee developed a set of guidelines around ethics.
Better:
The committee developed a set of ethics guidelines for members.

The use of around, in the sense of the first sentence, is almost always a sign of vagueness. In the second sentence, we better serve the reader by stating more clearly what is going on—the guidelines are for members. Even if we don't give any additional information beyond the first sentence, we can cut out flab by writing
The committee developed a set of ethics guidelines.

Around, in the sense of the first sentence, is gaining currency. In addition to saving the writer the effort of being clear or concise, it appeals to those writers who worry that more common prepositions just don't sound smart enough.


4. Know your own verbal tics. Is piece one of them?

With the tic:
We haven't figured out the professional development piece.
Without:
We haven't figured out professional development.

Normally I don't comment on speech, just writing, but piece is a prominent verbal tic among knowledge workers. Their jobs require them to analyze systems into parts; it's natural to think of the parts as "pieces," and to speak accordingly. But I have yet to hear a sentence that wouldn't be improved by just not doing that.

Because it's unpretentious, I would even prefer
We haven't figured out the professional development thing.


7 comments:

jeff said...

At the end of 3, did you mean "of and for just don't sound smart enough"?

Jason Zimba said...

I don't know! I think I mostly hear it where "around" or "for" would work...but I made an edit to limit the scope.

Tony said...

I pled, not I pleaded?

Jason Zimba said...

Pleaded was preferred by the usage panel, but pled was also considered acceptable.

Jason Zimba said...

N.B., In #3, I changed "government ethics" to "ethics" (with corresponding change in the second sentence) after receiving a complaint around personification. ;-)

Joanie Funderburk said...

A little late to the party, but OH MY GOODNESS you struck a chord with me on "piece" as a verbal tic! A former colleague used it so excessively, I started tally charts during meetings. It rubs me the wrong way to this day. I've also noticed a significant number of politicians and television personalities using "Look," to precede a point. What is that all about?

Jason Zimba said...

I would sometimes send Liz my tallies for "piece" and "right?" after a daylong meeting.

"Look" definitely took off around 2008 or so. In writing, it usefully imparts a conversational tone to transitions between paragraphs. In speech, it can sometimes convey an attitude of reasonableness ("Look, I wish it were different"). But it reads as stale writing in almost all cases now.