<< back to the archive list

August 25th, 2004

Pleaded vs. pled / bling-bling / a gender-neutral pronoun

by Barbara Wallraff

I had to convene a whole panel of experts to answer your questions this week.

Bob Moreillon, of Northville, Mich., writes: “I’m so glad someone is holding court on word usage. I’m charging The Associated Press Stylebook with malfeasance in its endorsement of ‘pleaded’ as the past tense of ‘plead’ -- as in ‘The defendant pleaded guilty.’ What’s wrong with the brevity of ‘pled,’ saving three letters? Are we to now say ‘The perpetrator fleed the scene’? I rest my case.”

Dear Bob: Let’s hear from the defense -- or, actually, Norm Goldstein, the longtime editor of The AP Stylebook. Goldstein told Word Court: “We plead not guilty on the charge of malfeasance in the case of ‘plead,’ ‘pleaded,’ ‘pleading.’ While both ‘pled’ and ‘pleaded’ are used, ‘pleaded’ is the more common usage and is well-established as legal style.” Goldstein went on to quote Bryan A. Garner, the editor of Black’s Law Dictionary and the author of Garner’s Modern American Usage: “Traditionally speaking, ‘pleaded’ is the best past-tense and past-participial form. Commentators on usage have long said so, pouring drops of vitriol onto ‘has pled’ and ‘has plead.’”

In this court, there’s no jury -- I can’t afford one! I find for the defense. After all, it’s “deeded,” not “ded”; “kneaded,” not “kned”; “seeded,” not “sed”; “weeded,” not “wed.” And I hope by now you’ve conceded -- not conced.

Jennifer Linden, of Kirkland, Wash., writes: “What does ‘bling-bling’ mean? I have read it in Time magazine and heard it on ‘The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.’ Where did it come from?”

Dear Jennifer: For your questions, let’s turn to Jesse Sheidlower, the principal editor of the North American editorial unit of the Oxford English Dictionary. He defines the noun “bling” as “an item of elaborately flashy jewelry or other adornment; (usually) such items collectively.” But, he explains, the word is usually seen in “reduplicated” form: “bling-bling.” As for where it came from, it’s “probably imitative of the flashing light from the jewelry.”

Donna Faith K-Brooks, of Brattleboro, Vt., writes: “Why is there no pronoun in the English language that is gender-neutral? If I wanted to ask where someone lives but didn’t know if the person was male or female, I’d have to say ‘Where does he or she live?’ or use the awkward pronoun ‘they’ in ‘Where do they live?’”

Dear Donna: English actually has two third-person pronouns that aren’t specifically male or female: “it” and “one.” But of course “it” doesn’t refer to human beings, and “one” is for nonspecific humans. (Besides, “one” sounds stuffy -- one rarely uses it in ordinary conversation.) Neither would work in your example sentence, which is exactly why people often say “they.” “They” to mean one person isn’t considered good-quality standard American English -- but I’ll bet within 20 years or so it will be.

Our language isn’t alone in lacking an appropriate pronoun. However, according to Norvin Richards, an associate professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about 40 percent of the world’s languages have words that do the job you have in mind. Two (of at least five) that are native to North America are “nekom,” in Passamaquoddy, and “wiin,” in Ojibwa. Maybe one of those will tide you over while we wait for “they” to become standard?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

<< back to the archive list