60-second fix: lead and led


Should you write:

a) ‘Last autumn, I led the Pegasus project’, or
b) ‘Last autumn, I lead the Pegasus project’?

The answer is a). Led is the past tense and past participle of the verb to lead.

The confusion arises for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the verb to read keeps the same spelling when transferred to the past tense, even though the pronunciation changes (from ‘reed’ to ‘red’). Why doesn’t lead follow the same rule? Unfortunately, the answer is the same as ever: because English is a tricksy and unpredictable beast.

Secondly, lead has several meanings – one as a verb, as mentioned above, and several as a noun. And to make things more confusing, one of the noun meanings rhymes with led.

lead (verb)
–  to guide or direct (pronounced ‘leed’)

lead (noun)
–  an important and instructive piece of information  (pronounced ‘leed’)
–  the advance position in a race or competition  (pronounced ‘leed’)
–  a leash or connecting cable  (pronounced ‘leed’)
–  a soft, malleable heavy metal (pronounced ‘led’)

However, while the word has many meanings, you need to remember only two spellings:

In the present tense, or when it’s a noun, it’s always lead
In the past tense, it’s always led.

Incidentally, would you like to hear about a little trivia we discovered along the way? Of course you would. Apparently, when Jimmy Page started to assemble the band that would later become known as Led Zeppelin, The Who’s Keith Moon commented that it would ‘go down like a lead balloon’. His bandmate extended this to ‘more like a lead zeppelin’.

On hearing this, Page decided to make it the band’s name. He dropped the ‘a’ from lead at the suggestion of his manager, so that people would understand that it was a play on heavy metal, and not pronounce it incorrectly. So now you know.

Many thanks to Gill Hepworth (@GillyHep) for suggesting this 60-second fix. For an index of past 60-second fixes, visit our 60-second quiz page.

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