Grammar Wednesday

The “is this the right word?” edition.

Kizz sent me a list of words yesterday and asked for some clarification. She reads an awful lot, and I gather that some of what she reads is of indeterminate quality, so she finds herself questioning what she sees; she thinks it’s wrong, but she’s not confident enough in herself to know for certain.

The first one she asked about is the verb plead; is the past tense pleaded or pled? I was really glad she asked this one, because every time I watch Law & Order, I wonder about this because “pleaded” just doesn’t sound right to me. Of course, by the time I sit down to watch Law & Order, I’m too lazy to get off my ass to look it up, so this is a good opportunity for me to finally put this one to bed.

According to everything I’ve been able to find, both forms are perfectly acceptable. This answer is a little bit of a let-down for me; I was kind of hoping for a long, complicated discussion of formality and convention, but there you have it. Use whichever form sounds right to you.

When Kizz asked about plead, I instantly thought of the verb prove; is the correct form of the past tense proven (which sounds right to me) or proved (which really doesn’t)? Yet again, the answer is “yes.” Both forms are correct, and I couldn’t really find any evidence to say that one is any more correct than the other.

The next question was whether or not I could illuminate some distinction between the verbs want and desire. According to my favorite dictionary (the one I can’t lift when my back is acting up), there isn’t much distinction at all. In fact, the words are used to define one another:

want1. to feel a need or a desire for; wish for. 2. to wish, need, crave demand, or desire (often followed by the infinitive, as in “I want to see you.”)

desire - 1. to wish or long for; crave; want. 2. to express a wish to obtain; a longing or craving, as for something that brings satisfaction or enjoyment (I desire that you shall come here).

I may just be kidding myself, but there seems to be a slight flavor difference between the two – it may be that the definition for desire used the word “longing.” If I were making up an answer on the fly, I’d say that you can want something without a desire component, but not the other way around; however, that may be just my way of looking at the definitions.

The next question came about, I’m sure, as a result of something she’d read that she just knew wasn’t right. What’s the difference, she asked, between regimen and regiment? Regimen is a noun that means a regulated course of diet, exercise, or manner of living; a rule or government; or a prevailing system. Regiment, on the other hand, is most often used as a noun meaning a unit of ground forces; as a verb, it means to treat in a rigid, uniform manner.

I had two questions from last week’s Grammar Wednesday (thanks, ladies!); JuliaDream wanted to know if there’s a difference between dreamed and dreamt and Michelle was asking about adverb placement.

JuliaDream, your question came up quite a while ago – as a matter of fact, I think Kizz brought this one up too (Grammar Wednesdays likely wouldn’t exist without Kizz!). I did a little bit of digging and came up with this answer.

As far as the adverb placement goes, Michelle, I don’t really think it matters unless putting the adverb in a different place changes the meaning – implied or otherwise – of the sentence. For example:

We always see Susan at church.

We see Susan always at church.

While these sentences could be taken to mean the same thing, in the first, we may see Susan around town, but we know for sure we’ll see her in church. The implication in the second sentence is that Susan doesn’t leave church very often. At least, that’s how I interpret those structures*. I tend to put the adverb in different places to indicate emphasis or formality; in the sentences you offered:

Blah blah blah is the only museum solely dedicated to blah blah blah or

Blah Blah Blah is the only museum dedicated solely to blah blah blah

I’d put the second sentence in the catalogue for the museum. Both essentially convey the same ideas, but the second structure sounds more formal to me.

Thanks, Everyone! Keep those Grammar Wednesday questions coming!

(*you can’t see me over here cringing because I KNOW this one’s going to start something…)

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. I think plea is just an alternative to plead. Both plea and plead can be nouns (that which one plea(d)s) but I have the intuition that plea has become more or less restricted to the noun while plead has become the verb. I could be well off about this. In any case, legal terms tend to carry an awful lot of historical baggage through the ages and I wouldn’t be surprised if plea/d was subject to a fair bit of fossilisation.

    Secondly, proven was in fact back-formed by the British, upon analogy with other -en-final participles, take, taken; smite, smitten; etc. The past tense and the participle of prove is was proved in both cases, except nowadays, proven is so widespread that it’s acceptable. I use it more often than not.

    I think you’re right about adverbs, whether they’re before the verb or before the object noun phrase can sometimes affect the meaning of the clause, but not always. Here’s one that doesn’t change meaning in four different orderings (except possibly the discourse pragmatics, but that’s getting complicated):

    Surreptitiously, he looked at me.

    He surreptitiously looked at me.

    He looked surreptitiously at me.

    He looked at me surreptitiously.

    I wouldn’t want to claim that any of those differs in propositional meaning from the rest, but it’s probably a result of the particular adverb more than anything else. For instance:

    He obviously looked surprised.

    He looked obviously surprised.

    In the first example, obviously describes the speaker’s opinion towards the state of events and how ‘obvious’ it was that he would look surprised. In the second, obviously doesn’t describe the state of events rather than just the surprised look. We might say that in the first, the adverb has ‘scope’ over the entire verb phrase looked surprised and therefore modifies all of it, whereas in the second, the adverb only has scope over surprised, so that is all that it modifies.

  2. I honestly thought one of the past forms of plea was pled. As in, “He pled guilty.”

  3. I didn’t phrase one of my questions well. What I saw was (essentially) “She had an undeniable want for hot monkey lovin’.” To me that is a totally wrong usage. Should have been “She had an undeniable DESIRE for the aforementioned hot monkey lovin’.” I was looking for clarification on that point. I’m 99.999992% sure that it’s a terribly bad usage put to keyboard by someone who could benefit from a thesaurus when writing about primate love.

  4. Jangari, you’ve said essentially what I was trying to express and, as usual, said it more eloquently than I. Thanks.
    ‘Bugs, plead is pronounced “pled,” and that’s the verb we’re questioning. You’ve got the right word, just the wrong spelling.
    Kizz, I think that you’re right, and tried to express that in my post. The distinction between the verbs is that whole idea of longing and, I forgot to mention, that the sixth definition of desire is sexual appetite or urge. Nowhere in the definition of want was there ever any mention of sex so, when we’re talkin’ about hot monkey lovin’, the correct verb is ALWAYS desire.

  5. As an anglophile I’ll say that – in my experience – the ‘T’ ending forms (spelt, dreamt) are used more often by the British. I don’t, in fact, know any Americans who say ‘dreamt’, etc, except me.

  6. Denever

    “plead is pronounced ‘pled,’ . . . You’ve got the right word, just the wrong spelling.”

    Citation, please? Both the Random House Unabridged and the American Heritage Dictionary give the past tense as “pleaded or pled.”

  7. I just thought I’d swing by to check in on the comments. Chili and I both know that today’s Grammar Wednesday is brought to you in part by fanfiction and IM. Imagine my surprise when it comes all the way to people citing historically badass sources like Random House and American Heritage. It’s like playing telephone…at Harvard.

  8. wordlily

    Denever, so does Oxford American, for what it’s worth.

  9. Ooops! Sorry – I goofed. PLED is the past tense of PLEAD, and it’s the form I prefer over “pleaded.” I botched that, I’ve fixed it in the entry, and you all have my apologies. Duh, Mrs. Chili; proofread, wouldja?!

  10. She had an undeniable want for hot monkey lovin’.

    …the correct verb is ALWAYS desire.

    But we’re talking about a noun here, albeit a deverbal one. I’d agree that desire can be a noun without any derivation involved, but want can also act as a noun, just in a restricted way. You can say his desire for monkey lovin’ but not *his want for monkey lovin’. But in the unmarked situation, a desire/a want, either can be a noun.

    Hmm, I may not even believe that myself on reflection.

  11. DUH! Yet again, I fail to actually READ the sentence. The verb in that structure is HAD, not DESIRE. GRRR! I’m going to stop commenting on the fly; I’m making myself look dumb….

    Oh, and by the way, don’t you all just LOVE the scholarly and refined nature of our linguistic investigations? Hot monkey lovin’, indeed!

  12. The Associated Press absolutely refuses to use the grammatically proper “pled,” preferring the equally correct “pleaded.” Don’t ask me why! They just do!

  13. Denever

    Usually there’s a house style at news organizations and publishing houses. Someone, at some point, decides to use one accepted form rather than the other(s) because it’s easier to train copyeditors with absolutes like, “Our style is to use ‘pleaded’ in all cases” than with options like, “Either is correct, so feel free to use whichever you prefer.”

    In speech, I use both but not quite interchangeably. “Pleaded” sounds better in some sentences and “pled” sounds better in others. Same for “proved” and “proven.” Hmm … there’s probably some unspoken rule behind my preferences, but I’m too tired to give examples and analyze them tonight. :)

  14. I’m with Denever on this one.

    I also think that the difference between want and desire is only in the realm of inflection and intensity.

  15. Denever, you made me stop to think about how I use those verbs, and I’ve found that I, like ‘Bugs, am also with you. I’ll use different forms of “plead,” depending on the sentence. I’ll say:

    He pleaded his case before his parents, but was unsuccessful in gaining permission to join the motorcycle gang.

    but

    The defendant pled guilty to the menacing charge.

    Weird. I’m usually not inconsistent like that – I tend to establish a “house style” and stick with it. For me, for example, the correct form is ALWAYS “proven.”

    Huh. Thanks for making me think a little more!

  16. I’d like to suggest that these inconsistencies arise in legal terminology especially because of lexicalisation and idioms. That is, one hears “pled guilty” often enough such that it sticks in their internal lexicon, the entire phrase, and is inserted into appropriate contexts as an entire chunk.

  17. Thought I’d interject and let you know where I saw the pleaded instance and came up with the question since it relates. I was in a deli, waiting to be rung up and reading the CNN ticker when they said that someone I had never heard of pleaded guilty to something I did not know had even occurred. I wondered if pleaded was the AP’s house style purely because it would make meaning easier to read on a ticker or the like. However, that was back when I thought that pled was spelled plead, as well as plead being spelled plead so that there might be some confusion. Apparently the confusion was mine alone.

  18. Pingback: Grammar Wednesday « A Teacher’s Education

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