"Use" Versus "Utilize"

Plus a bonus topic: “pled” versus “pleaded.”

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #161

Today guest-writer Bonnie Trenga is helping us talk about two sets of words that listeners get confused: “pleaded guilty” or “pled guilty,” and “use” or “utilize.”

“Plead” Versus “Pled”

Mike from Georgia is transitioning from law enforcement to freelance writing and wants to know which is correct: “He pled guilty” or “He pleaded guilty.” He says that some of the people he calls his hoity-toity friends claim that “pleaded” is always right, but he’s heard educated people use “pled.” Don’t be afraid to argue with a grammar snob on this issue because in America, Scotland, and some areas of the U.K. you could use “pled” if you wanted to (1); but you should also be prepared to eventually concede.

I’m sure we’ve all heard the sentence “He pled guilty.” It seems to be a logical way to form the past tense of the verb “to plead,” just as it’s perfectly correct to write the past-tense verb “led” in “He led me away.” Today he leads; yesterday he led—no problem. Of course, hearing something doesn’t make it right, so I checked my dictionary (2). Indeed it lists “pled” as a valid past-tense form or past participle of the verb “to plead.” So grammar miscreants did not deviously gather together and make up that word to enrage grammarians, but some grammarians are mad. Sources I checked fall all along the spectrum of indignation. One (3) flatly states, “The past tense of ‘plead’ is ‘pleaded,’ not ‘pled.’” Another, Bryan Garner (4), acknowledges the existence of “pled” but admonishes us that “‘Pleaded’ is the predominant form in both American English and British English and always the best choice.” The AP Stylebook (5), used by journalists, sums it up well, I think: “Do not use the colloquial past-tense form, ‘pled.’”

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Since we’re dealing with legal issues, I checked with a lawyer to be certain. She and her husband, also a lawyer, kindly referred me to Garner, whom I’ve already quoted. He has written multiple legal-oriented tomes in addition to the grammar guide I quoted earlier, and they all advise lawyers to use “pleaded,” though Garner does acknowledge in one legal guide (6) that “pled” “is a common variant in legal usage.” Yet it's not that common in the news: a quick search of Google News shows that “pleaded guilty” is about 60 times more common than “pled guilty.”

So, even though it seems that lawyers occasionally do say, “pled,” you should probably avoid “pled” unless you want to risk the indignation of the so-called hoity-toity.

“Use” Versus “Utilize”

Now on to the difference between “use” and “utilize,” thanks to a question from Thomas.


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.

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