Attributing the tweet to Dowd set off a new round of incredulous chatter. Would the president’s lawyer really compose a tweet like that on his client’s behalf, especially one that seemed so incriminating? One widely shared response, from a person who tweets from the account @nycsouthpaw, focused on a single word in the tweet as grounds for skepticism: “We’re supposed to believe John Dowd wrote pled instead of pleaded?”
Others argued that Dowd could very well have used pled as the past tense of plead. Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain noted, “I’ve seen lawyers write each. It’s not like, you know, hung and hanged.” Indeed, both pleaded and pled are considered acceptable by American usage guides—though, in many newsrooms, pled is considered a rookie mistake, which helps explain why some journalists seized on it.
Pled actually dates back to the 16th century, and though it never gained much traction in British English, it has been gaining in popularity in American English over the past few decades. Some prefer pled because they think pleaded sounds wrong, based on analogous past-tense forms like bleed/bled and feed/fed. Plenty of legal types don’t seem to mind pled, at least not in the United States. In fact, when the blog Above the Law polled its readers in 2011, 57 percent of the 1,311 respondents preferred pled to pleaded.
But what of Dowd himself?
I searched through the LexisNexis news database to try to find his preference for forming the past tense of plead, and I discovered an example from January 2010, when Dowd was representing the billionaire hedge-fund manager Raj Rajaratnam, who was standing trial for insider trading. As quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Dowd said of Rajaratnam, “He’s pled not guilty and we intend to try his case and demonstrate that he’s innocent.” (Rajaratnam was later found guilty and is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence.)
So Dowd, too, is on record as a pled user. That single word does not betray some nonlawyerly voice—Trump’s or anyone else’s—so we can’t point to it as evidence for who really wrote that tweet. It would be a tidy solution to isolate the use of pled as a kind of “tell” disproving the attribution of the tweet to Dowd, but it is in fact exceedingly difficult to be able to identify such a linguistic smoking gun.
One skeptic on Twitter wrote, “A forensic linguist could rule out Dowd in 5 minutes. Once that happens, Trump has no backpedal.” Actual forensic linguists would be hard-pressed to rule Dowd in or out on the basis of a single tweet, however. The field of authorship analysis requires significant amounts of textual data in order to be reliable. First, one would need to compile past texts firmly attributed to the potential authors—in this case, Trump and Dowd. That could at least establish idiosyncratic patterns of style and usage, but for a low-frequency word like pled, even that approach may prove fruitless. (For what it’s worth, Trump had never previously used pled in a tweet, according to the Trump Twitter Archive. Trump’s only use of pleaded is from a news article he quoted.)