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Having access to good search tools and a massive database, though, we can put all the bickering and pedantry aside and get a pretty good picture of how these contentious verb forms are actually used in the real world. And what the numbers tell us is pretty interesting.
It turns out pleaded is the clear favorite, mentioned in more than twice as many cases as pled. Different jurisdictions, though, vary fairly widely in their usages of the two words. Of the cases that include either of the words in question, the Federal Seventh Circuit uses pled in only 26 percent, whereas the Fourth Circuit uses it in 59 percent of its cases. The US Supreme Court is by far the most consistent, using pleaded almost 100 times more often than pled.
Just like the federal courts, the states seem to have their own conventions on word choice. Idaho, the most pled-friendly state, uses the word more than twice as often as pleaded, but Massachusetts prefers pleaded by an eighteen-to-one margin.
The two things that seem to make the biggest difference overall are geography and time. A quick check with Fastcase’s interactive timeline shows that there has been a steady trend toward pled in the last 25 years or so, while pleaded has stayed relatively steady.
The three states with the greatest proportion of pled cases (Idaho, Montana, and Arizona) are, interestingly enough, all western states. The three states most adherent to the style manuals prescribing pleaded (Maine, Connecticut, and Massachusetts) are all located in New England.
A poll posted on the ABA Journal last week shows that 69 percent of respondents preferred pled to pleaded, but so far it looks like legal opinions haven’t caught up to public opinion.