When you’re writing calls for you to select the proper past participle form of ‘prove,’ should you select proved or proven?
Over time, debates like selecting between proved or proven get complicated. That’s because preferences change as the language evolves and what once might have been the right choice may no longer be.
Proved is about 350 years older than the alternate version, which only came onto the scene in the 1650s, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
To prove something means to demonstrate that it is true. I assume they still teach Geometry in math classes. In my 10th grade year, we had to learn proofs in Geometry. We had to list every step we used to solve an equation and explain it.
While my brain tends to like explanations of things, I hated that part of math. I never knew exactly how much explanation was appropriate. There comes a point, after all, when the justification for some mathematical facts, like 2+2=4, seems to be, “Because it is.”
Once you prove something to be true, you have proved it.
Proved serves as the past tense form of prove.
But what do you do when it comes to past participle?
The past participle form of a verb is the one you use with helping verbs like has or have. Some verbs in English confuse writers because of unusual past participle forms. Take the verb swim, for example. The present tense is swim, the past tense is swam, but the past participle is swum, a seldom-used word that often snags writers.
The verb prove can also trip up writers. While the past tense is clear, the past participle might be proved or proven.
The best way to know which is preferred is to refer to the style guide you tend to rely on. The bulk of writing I do for my real job follows the Associated Press Stylebook. I, therefore, adopt AP Style here whenever possible to avoid confusing myself.
AP Style says to avoid proven except as an adjective. You can have a proven strategy or a proven remedy. As an adjective, proven means something confirmed to work. So AP Style dictates that proved would be the proper past participle form:
John has been proven not guilty of the crime.
I wouldn’t write the sentence that way. I would say a judge (or jury, as the case may be) found John not guilty because I try to write in active voice when possible. But there are times when mixing in a bit of passive voice isn’t the end of the world.
If you rely on AP Style, you want proved. But let’s take a deeper look.
Proved or proven?
Dictionary.com reports that besides AP Style, The Chicago Manual of Style also recommends proved.
But then we have a bit of a problem. Consider the famous phrase we hear about people accused of crimes: They are innocent until proven guilty. Technically, the sentence states we should consider someone innocent until they are proven guilty. That little helping verb, are, requires the past participle form. But don’t allow that famous phrase to dictate the right answer!
WritingExplained.org cites the Oxford English Dictionary, which it quotes as saying you can use either word.
But DailyWritingTips also cites OED, saying that proven is the more popular choice in Scotland and North America. For British English, you should use proved, which remains more popular there. But it notes there are examples of proven appearing even in British English.
The right answer depends on where your audience is and your style guide.
If you’re writing for a North American or Scottish audience, select proven as the past participle.
If you’re writing for a British audience, select proved.
Or, if you’re using either the Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style, you’ll also want to select proved.
Otherwise, if you face no such limitations, you can probably safely assume that everyone will understand your message, even if they suspect you may have chosen the wrong word!