Grammar: Lead vs Led vs Lead

The problem of “lead” is a less well-known grammar error, but still all too common.

First, I’d like to make it clear that this is not a grammar blog. There are many far better ones that expound on the complexities of the English language, sites that I myself use on a regular basis to refresh my memory or learn something new. (A few examples: Grammarist, Grammar Girl, The Purdue OWL.) That being said, I would like to call attention to the errors I see most often while editing, the incorrect usages of grammar or spelling  that Spell Check won’t always pick up. This week is lead vs lead vs led.

I was reminded of this common error when I saw this on Grammarly’s Facebook page:


Disregarding the fact that this picture itself has errors in the text (bonus brownies if you can find them) and that these are really more of grammar errors than spelling ones, the listed “peeves” are indeed the most common ones I see. Sometimes it’s people thinking faster than they can type, or Evil Autocorrect, but it’s usually just absentminded mistakes and innocent ignorance. Problems arise because most of these words are homophones: they are all verbally pronounced the same way. Transferring speech to text is when the differences in spelling and usage can be confusing.

Lead vs Lead

How did you read the above header? “Leed” versus “ledd”? Or “ledd” versus “leed”? “Leed” and “leed”? “Ledd” and “ledd”?

“Lead” is a tricksy word in that it can be a noun, verb, or adjective. It all depends on the context in which you’re using it. As a noun, it’s fairly simple:

  • The door was made out of lead. 
    (sounds like "bed")
  • I put my dog on her lead to take her for a walk. 
    (sounds like "bead"; a fairly British term here, as Americans would more likely use "leash".)
  • I'm taking the lead on this case. 
    (sounds like "bead")

The adjective form isn’t really used in daily conversation unless you work in business or entertainment :

  • Maria is the lead actor in this play. 
    (sounds like "bead")

The verb form is where it gets a little complicated.

  • I decided to lead the discussion for once. 
    Lead the way! 
    (sounds like "bead")

The above examples are the present tense of “lead”, actions that are happening right here and now. The past tense of “lead” is “led”, which sounds an awful lot like the metallic “lead”, and is where all the confusion comes in.

Lead vs Led

So what does all this have to do with copyediting? Well, the error is so common and yet so understated that I really must be paying attention in order to catch mistakes like this:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. lead the march on Washington. 

Leed or ledd? Is this past or present? If it’s present, then it’s still wrong, because the noun (Martin Luther King, Jr.) is singular; it should be “leads”. If it’s past, then it should be “led”

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. led the march on Washington.
    (sounds like "bed")

But what if it’s a plural noun?

  • The forks rebelled against the knives, and lead the assault with their allies, the spoons. 

Most of you probably wouldn’t notice that mistake right away; our brains are conditioned to read text not for what it actually says, but what we think it says. (Hence the amazing phenomenon that is the jumbled word theory.) Your brain knows “lead” sounds like both “bead” and “bed”, and since “rebelled” was in the past tense, you read “lead” as “led”. I admit to having made this error many times – it was a professor in college who actually called me out on it – and even in the writing of this very post! It’s one of those things that I especially have to watch out for when I’m proofing content.

  • The forks rebelled against the knives, and led the assault with their allies, the spoons.
    (sounds like "bed")

Like multiplication, the periodic table of elements, and brushing your teeth, distinguishing between “lead/led” is just something you have to memorize. “Led” is always a verb, the past tense of “lead”. Conversely, unless it’s an infinitive (to lead), you’ll see “lead” only in its adjective or noun form when writing/editing text in past tense. Verb wise, it’s present tense. Context is also key; read the surrounding sentences carefully to determine correct usage.

If you’re a writer and you keep making this mistake, don’t sweat it! The important thing is to get those words out of your head and down on (virtual) paper. When you go back over your draft, focus particularly on lead/led to make sure they’re being used right. For editors, perhaps leave a sticky note on your desk or bookmark this post to remind you of what to doublecheck while proofing. It can only help, and with time, you’ll be able to outsmart your brain into never overlooking it again.



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