• 3-minute read
  • 7th September 2017

Word Choice: Led vs. Lead

The word ‘lead’ has many definitions. Too many, really. In fact, somebody should have put a stop to this nonsense a long time ago. But they didn’t, and now we have to live with it. So, to help you avoid errors in your work, we’ve prepared a quick guide to the various uses of ‘lead’, along with some advice about not mixing up the words ‘lead’ and ‘led’.

Lead (Guidance, Winning, Cables and Metal)

We can break down the uses of ‘lead’ into four main categories:

Definition 1: Guidance

Perhaps the most common use of ‘lead’ is to mean ‘guide’ or ‘show the way’:

The satnav will lead us home.

She wanted to lead the expedition.

This is usually a verb (i.e. the act of guiding), but it can also be a noun (i.e. a thing that guides):

Without a lead to follow, Holmes would never solve the case.

We need to walk the dog, but I can’t find his lead.

Bella would like you to know that she considers the lead unnecessary and undignified.

Both verb and noun forms here are pronounced to rhyme with ‘seed’.

Definition 2: Winning

Another use of ‘lead’ is related to winning and success. As above, this can either be a verb (i.e. being in an advanced or winning position) or a noun (i.e. a winning position):

She is leading the field with her research.

After three laps, he was still in the lead.

This use of ‘lead’ also rhymes with ‘seed’ when spoken.

Definition 3: Electrical Cable

A slightly different use of ‘lead’ is to mean ‘electrical cable’:

My laptop died after I lost the lead I needed to charge it.

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Despite the difference, this term is also pronounced to rhyme with ‘seed’.

Definition 4: Heavy Metal

Finally, ‘lead’ is also a soft, heavy metal (or the graphite in a pencil):

The lead paint fumes made him dizzy.

She kept drawing until the lead in her pencil broke.

This use of ‘lead’ is pronounced differently and rhymes with ‘bed’.

Wrong kind of heavy metal. Sorry.

Led (Past Tense of ‘Lead’)

Thankfully, the word ‘led’ (also pronounced to rhyme with ‘bed’) is much easier to understand. In all cases, it is the past tense of the verb forms of ‘lead’:

She led the race from start to finish.

The road led up to the castle.

However, be careful not to mix it up with the initialism LED (pronounced ‘ell-ee-dee’), which is short for light-emitting diode (a small light used in some electronic products).

Lead or Led?

The main problem here is that ‘led’ (the past tense verb) is pronounced the same as ‘lead’ (the metal). In addition, some people assume that ‘lead’ follows the same pattern as ‘read’ (where ‘read’ is present and past tense).

But as long as you keep in mind that the past tense of ‘lead’ is always ‘led’ (no matter the context), it should be easy to avoid mistakes. Remember:

Lead (verb, rhymes with ‘seed’) = To guide, direct or occupy a winning position

Lead (noun, rhymes with ‘seed’) = A winning position or something that guides

Lead (noun, rhymes with ‘bed’) = A soft, heavy metal

Led (verb, rhymes with ‘bed’) = Past tense of ‘lead’

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