Saturday, November 27, 2010
From the Volokh Conspiracy:
English, probably like all human languages, is full of internal structures of logic and order (which I’ll call “regularities” — observations that “conform to a trend [or] pattern”). It’s critical for people to understand these regularities in order to learn the language (which is to say to learn actual usage). They also help shape how the language changes: New terms and changes to old terms almost always fit some aspect of those regularities. The regularities are thus helpful predictors of usage, for instance when you’re not familiar enough with the term to know the usage, and can’t easily look it up (if you’ve never heard the verb suborn before, you can still make a good guess that its past tense is suborned), or when the term is too new for there to be a large pool of usage to consult.
The trouble is that those regularities often conflict with each other, or have one-off exceptions that are fully standard, notwithstanding their departure from the regularity. Regularities can’t tell you which of two rival regularities to turn to, nor can tell you when an exception to the regularities should be used. How do we resolve these conflicts? Precisely by looking at standard usage.
. . . .[P]leaded vs. pled. There is an important and commonly followed regularity in English: Most verbs form the past tense by adding –ed. But pled didn’t develop just because someone invented a completely unusual irregularity; language rarely changes that way.
Rather, there is also a rival regularity: The other verbs that end with the –leed sound, when produced by the letters –lead and –leed — lead, mislead, and bleed — form the past tense by changing the –eed sound to an –ed sound. And some (but not all) other verbs that end with the –eed sound, when produced by –ead and –eed, operate similarly: read, breed, feed, and speed (but not bead, knead, deed, heed, need, or seed). I assume that plead acquired the pled form by analogy to lead, bleed, and the like — by following one regularity rather than another, and not just by entirely departing from “internal structures of logic or order.”
So which regularity to follow? The only answer is usage. Usage gives us one answer for lead and read. It gives us another for bead and need. For plead, modern legal usage (as reflected in court opinions) reports that both pleaded and pled are standard.
I don’t think there’s any external vantage from which you can fault established usage as “incorrect” (as opposed to, say, ambiguous or confusing, which is a different criticism). Correctness is, in my view, defined by usage. But in any event, unless you are prepared to radically redesign the English language — and somehow get hundreds of millions of speakers to go along with you — you can’t define correctness by adherence to “internal structure of logic or order,” because in our actual current English language there are many rival structures, as well as exceptions to structures.
Read the rest here.
Hat tip to Above the Law.