Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 91: A Misleading Past

This week, we're going to talk about a common mix-up involving the past tense of the verb, to lead. It's an error so common that—as cited in Fowler's Modern English Usage—it even slips past the best copy editors once in a while and ends up in print.

Let's begin by reviewing the multiple uses of the verb, to lead. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, the verb has a lot of meanings.

First, it can mean "to cause a person or animal to go with one":
The tour guide leads visitors through the museum.

Second, it can mean "be a route or means of access":
This street leads to the center of town.

It can mean "be in charge of":
Pat is leading the new Web development group.

It can mean "to have the advantage in a race or game":
Going into the final turn, Daddy's Girl is still leading the other horses.

It can also mean "to have a particular way of life":
Gerry leads a rather simple, practical life.

The confusion with lead is its past-tense form; specifically, its spelling. The past tense of lead is led — spelled L-E-D.
The tour guide led visitors through the museum.

The horse called Daddy's Girl led the race going into the final turn.

So often, however, people think the past tense is spelled L-E-A-D. As we said at the top, it's a common error. Some of the confusion may come from the noun lead, the bluish-grey metallic element. It's spelled just like the verb, to lead, but it's pronounced like led.

To overcome this common spelling mix-up, here's a little trick that may be helpful: the present tense is L-E-A-D; the past tense is L-E-D. Present is a longer word than past; lead is a longer word than led. So present tense, long word, L-E-A-D. Past tense, short word, L-E-D.

One could also compare it to the words feed and fed, which rhyme with and have a similar structure to lead and led. The present tense forms lead and feed have four letters; the past-tense forms, led and fed, are both three-letter words. Perhaps you can devise your own strategies for remembering this. And there's no need being troubled by mnemonic devices that might seem silly; for example, listen to the "goat farmer" story in the episode. If the mnemonic device can help you remember, there's nothing silly in that.

Sources: Fowler's Modern English Usage by RW Burchfield; Oxford Dictionary of Current English.

Music: "Misled" by Kool & the Gang; "Don't Let's Start" by They Might Be Giants.

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