Confusing Lead and Led

How to properly use both

Lead (Chemical Element)
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The words lead and led are particularly tricky: sometimes they sound alike and sometimes they don't.

Definitions

Led (which rhymes with red) is both the past and past participle form of the verb to lead (rhymes with deed). The verb to lead means to 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 (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.

In case you're curious, LED (all capitals) is an abbreviation for light-emitting diode--a semiconductor diode that emits light.

Examples

  • We led the game until the eighth inning.
  • Now the Cubs have taken the lead.
  • Exposure to lead in paint can lead to serious health problems.
  • "The theory that lead led to the decline of the Roman Empire was first advanced in 1965."
    (John Emsley, The Elements of Murder. Oxford University Press, 2005

Usage Note: The Inconsistencies of English Spelling and Pronunciation

"[W]hy not . . . bring the spelling [of English words] in line with the pronunciation? In the case of lead and its past tense led, we follow this line, but in another similar case, read with the past tense read, we do not do so: we keep the original spelling but change the pronunciation of read in the past tense.

The logical thing to do would be to write the past tense of read, red, in the same way we spell the past tense of lead, led. But then the purists would object that if we did that, we should be spelling the past tense of read (red) in the same way as the color (red) and that would cause confusion, as the reader would not know if it referred to the past tense of read or the color.

But if that were really the case, then there would be similar confusion between the two similar words which are written lead, which has two different pronunciations: lead, meaning to conduct, and lead the metal. Yet there is no confusion, no has there ever been any, for the simple reason that it is the context of the sentence which indicates the meanings of the words."
(Mont Follick, The Case for Spelling Reform. Manchester University Press, 1965)


Practice

(a) Your advice will _____ me into trouble.

(b) Your advice has _____ me into trouble many times before.

(c) Some of the pipes in the Roman baths were made of _____.

(d) "It was a close game late in the season; the Broncos had done what they were famous for in those days, jumped out to a twenty-point _____ and then lost it incrementally as the quarters went past."
(Pam Houston, Waltzing the Cat. W.W. Norton, 1998)

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Answers to Practice Exercises: 

(a) Your advice will lead me into trouble.

(b) Your advice has led me into trouble many times before.

(c) Some of the pipes in the Roman baths were made of lead.

(d) "It was a close game late in the season; the Broncos had done what they were famous for in those days, jumped out to a twenty-point lead and then lost it incrementally as the quarters went past."
(Pam Houston, Waltzing the Cat.

W.W. Norton, 1998)