The verb prove has two past participles: proved and proven. Prove in the past tense is proved.
What is the difference between proved and proven?
Ever feel like you have something to prove? If so, you’re probably preoccupied with displaying a capability or talent. But what if you were to “prove” something in the past? Was it proven or proved?
As it turns out, proven and proved are both past participles of the verb prove. What’s a past participle, you ask? Good question.
Past participles are a type of verb form used with “helping verbs” like have, has, or had to form passive and perfect tenses (the non-continuous ones). For example,
Present tense: “The crumb trail proves someone ate my brownies.”
Past tense: “The disappearance of my brownies proved we can trust nobody.”
Past perfect: “I had proved/proven that someone stole my brownies.”
Most verbs have one past tense form and one past participle, but some utilize the same word for both tenses. “Prove” used to be one of those words (or so it would seem).
The history of proved vs. proven
Early Middle English spellings of prove once included preven and preve/preved (c. 1300), two variants that eventually died out in British English but resumed through Scots, the indigenous language of Scotland. However, the emergence of “proven” as a past participle is widely attributed to set phrases of Scots Law: “no previen” (Scots) or “not proven” (English).
The two usage variations managed to exist separately until the works of the late 19th-century poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1850–1892), who is believed to have used “proven” for “metrical reasons.” As delivered from Tennyson’s 1885 poem, “The Ancient Sage” (Tennyson 98):
“…Thou canst not prove that I, who speak with thee,
Am not thyself in converse with thyself,
For nothing worthy proving can be proven,
Nor yet disproven: wherefore thou be wise…”
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson
But while Merriam-Webster attributes Tennyson as one the “earliest frequent users” of “proven,” grammarians of the time widely shunned the variation and continue to do so today. For example, Garner’s Modern English Usage maintains how “proved” has been the primary past tense and past participle form of “prove” since the 17th century and that “proven” may “ill-advisedly” appear as a variant past participle (Garner 743).
Sounds contentious, right? But despite England’s affinity to traditional British grammar, the Scots variant has managed to find its place in common usage today. A quick search through Google’s Ngram Viewer shows how “proven” arrived in American literary usage in the 19th century and achieved equal frequency during the late 20th century.
As of 2019, “proven” is now more common in American English than the older form of “proved.” And due to its increasing popularity overseas, the “ill-advised” past participle began appearing in British English around the 1960s and has since become more common (but never more than “proved”).
What does prove mean?
The verb prove means “to demonstrate the truth or validity” of something with evidence, whether it’s a theory, fact, an ability, or an attribute of one’s character. Verb forms include prove(s) for the present tense, proved for the past tense, proving for the present participle, and proved/proven for the past participle.
- “Based on the attendees, I’d say the acoustic group has proved to be a crowd favorite.”
- “Applying regular SPF is a proven method for antiaging and skin cancer prevention.”
- “He’s spent the last week proving that the Earth is, in fact, very round.”
- “Don’t tell us you’re a passionate writer. Prove it with your writing.”
Convince, demonstrate, establish, evince, manifest, show, substantiate, validate.
Disprove, rebut, refute.
Etymology of prove
Middle English prove derives from prover, an Old French word stemming from Latin probare (for ‘test, approve, demonstrate’) and probus (meaning ‘good’).
Phrases of prove
The verb prove occurs in the following English phrases:
To “prove yourself” is to show your genuineness or talent for something. For example,
- “The politician tried to prove himself to the crowd by kissing babies.”
Prove someone wrong
To “prove someone wrong” is to show that someone is wrong or incorrect about something. For example,
- “Elle Woods attended Harvard Law School to prove her ex-boyfriend wrong about her ability to be serious.”
Innocent until proven guilty
Also known as the “presumption of innocence,” the set phrase “innocent until proven guilty” relates to a legal principle in the United States for “due process,” in which a prosecuting attorney must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an accused person is guilty of a crime. For example,
- “The documents outline mere accusations, as all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
How to use proven vs. proved in a sentence?
To use the verb prove for the past tense, “proved” is the only correct word to use.
- “I proved him wrong!”
- “You proved I couldn’t spell.”
“Proved” and “proven” are interchangeable past participles in American English, while British English prefers the old word, “proved.”
- “I have proved him wrong before.”
- “They have proved their point.”
- “She will have proved us right.”
- “We would have proven our point.”
- “I have proven this theory before.”
Exception: Use proved for formal writing
Exceptions for “proved” and “proven” occur for various style guides, which dictate “standard usage” for formal writing. As noted by Columbia Journalism Review, American style guides like The Associated Press Stylebook, The New York Times Manual of Style, and The Chicago Manual of Style all instruct writers to use “proved” as the past participle of “prove.”
- “For some, like Ms. Dessin, those conditions amid a pandemic proved fatal.” — The New York Times
- “Prior to the theft, visitors to the Cattelan exhibition could book a three-minute appointment to use the toilet. This had proved popular when the toilet was on display at the Guggenheim.” — AP News
Show we use proven or proved as an adjective?
Within American English, “proven” appears as an adjective before nouns. In this case, we should never substitute “proven” with “proved.”
- “It is a proven theory.”
- “She has a proven track record.”
- “The jury rules against this proven liar.”
- “It’s a proved method of success.”
- “A proved talent, indeed.”
If you enjoy learning about English grammar, be sure to check out similar lessons by The Word Counter, such as:
Test how well you understand the difference between proved and proven with the following multiple-choice questions.
- True or false?: Between “proved” and “proven,” proven is the older form.
- Proved and proven are ___________.
c. Past participles
- This Scottish variant is thought to have entered standard English through its use in legal writing.
d. B and C
- Who is most likely to use “proven” as a past participle?
a. American writers
b. A British writer
c. 19th century grammarians
d. B and C
- Which specific style guide recommends using “proved” as the only past participle of “prove”?
a. The AP Stylebook
b. The NYT Manual of Style
c. The Chicago Manual of Style
d. All of the above
- Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary attributes the uncommon, literary use of “proven” within British English to ___________.
b. The adjective form of verbs
c. Reasons of meter
d. Legal use
- Donovan, L., and M. Alarcón. “Long Hours, Low Pay, Loneliness and a Booming Industry.” The New York Times, nytimes.com, 25 Sept 2021.
- Garner, B. “Proved; proven.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 743.
- Harper, D. “Proven.” Online Etymology Dictionary, etymonline.com, 2021.
- Katz, G. “Solid gold toilet stolen from Winston Churchill’s birthplace.” AP News, apnews.com, 14 Sept 2019.
- Perlman, M. “Proof: Is ‘proved’ the same as ‘proven’?” Columbia Journalism Review, archives.cjr.org, 7 Jun 2010.
- Presumption of innocence.” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, Aug 2020.
- “Prove.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020.
- “Prove.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2021.
- “Prove.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
- “Prove.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
- Tennyson, A. “The Ancient Sage.” 1885. The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse, edited by D. H. S. Nicholson and A. H. E. Lee, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1917, p. 98.