Lead vs. Led: How to Choose the Right Word

Assortment of lead fishing sinkers
Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

The words "lead" vs. "led" are particularly tricky: Sometimes they sound alike and sometimes they don't. "Led" (which rhymes with "red") is both the past and past participle form of the verb "lead" (which rhymes with "deed"). The verb to "lead" means guide, direct, or bring to a conclusion.

The noun "lead" (rhymes with "red") refers to the metal (as in "a lead pipe"). The noun "lead" (which rhymes with "deed") refers to an initiative, an example, or a position at the front ("in the lead"). The verb "lead" and the noun "lead" are homographs: words that have the same spelling but differ in meaning and (sometimes) pronunciation.

How to Use "Lead"

Use the verb "lead" to indicate that someone is directing or at the front of others, as in:

  • They "lead" the group to safety.
  • He "leads" the group to safety.

To use "lead" as a noun or adjective when you mean the metal, you can craft a sentence such as:

  • Many children became sick due to "lead" paint on the walls of older houses.
  • The paint was made with "lead."

You might also have read a sentence such as:

  • The baseball player "leads" the league in home runs.

This sentence uses "lead" in the sense of having a position in front of.

How to Use "Led"

To use "led," simply use it as the past tense or past participle for "lead," as in:

  • He, alone, "led" the group to safety.
  • They have "led" the group to safety.

Merriam-Webster suggests that if you aren’t sure whether to write "led" or "lead" as the verb in your sentence, try reading it aloud to yourself. If the verb is pronounced "led" (with a short "e"), write "led."

Examples

To determine when to use "lead" or "led," it's simplest to first discuss the term "led," which is always either the past tense or the past participle of the verb "lead." So, you might say:

  • We "led" the game until the eighth inning.

The word "lead," however, can have a number of meanings. If you want to use the word in terms of being in the front position, you might say:

  • Now the Cubs have taken the "lead."

This means that the Cubs are, at present, ahead of their opponents. Up to this point in the game, they have scored more runs. You can also use "lead" in the same sentence in a couple of different ways:

  • Exposure to "lead" in paint may "lead" to serious health problems.

In this sentence, the first use of "lead" (rhymes with "head") refers to the metal, which has been found to have many unhealthful properties. In the second use, "lead" (rhymes with "bead") means to tend toward or to have a result.

John Emsley, in "The Elements of Murder," uses both "lead" and "led" in the same sentence and adjacent to each other:

"The theory that lead led to the decline of the Roman Empire was first advanced in 1965."

In this case, Emsley uses "lead" referring to the metal, and "led" as the past tense of "lead." You can also use "lead" in a few other ways, including:

  • Your advice will "lead" me into trouble.

In this use, "lead" means to guide or cause a person to get into trouble. You can also say: "The runner was in the 'lead' for most of the race," meaning the runner was in front of his competitors, or, "He took the 'lead' in fighting the measure," indicating that he directed the fight against the measure. By contrast, if you say, "His 'lead' was the ace of spades," you are saying that he played that particular card first.

How to Remember the Difference

A few memory tricks can help you keep the various meanings straight. You might remember:

  • I like to "lead" with an ace, but previously, when I didn't have any aces, I "led" with a lower card.

Or you might try another memory trick like:

  • He took the "lead" in letting everyone know that "lead" "led" to the decline of the Roman Empire.

This may help you remember that "lead," meaning a leadership position, is pronounced with a long "e," while "led" as the past tense of "lead," as well as "lead" the metal, is pronounced with a short "e."

Special Uses and Idioms

"Lead" has a myriad of other uses. It can mean a clue, as in:

  • The detective had no "leads" to go on.

In this case, it's often used as a plural. "Lead" can also be used as an idiom, as in:

  • He had a "lead-foot."

Of course, a human being does not have a foot made of "lead." Rather, "lead" is a heavy metal, so the idiom is using the term to indicate that the person has a tendency to step on the gas pedal too hard and drive too fast. Some dictionaries even list the term "leadfoot," meaning a person who drives too fast, as in:

  • Joe's "leadfoot" was always getting him into trouble.

In this use, clearly Joe does not have a "leadfoot" or a "lead-foot"—that is, a foot that simply weighs more than the average foot and therefore pushes harder on the gas pedal. Instead, Joe chooses to disobey the law, put the pedal to the metal (fully depress the gas pedal), and drive much faster than the posted speed limit, possibly "leading" to speeding tickets and other moving violations.

Sources