No fewer than four times this week, I’ve run across the word “lead” used by smart and even bookish people where “led” is appropriate. This is a tricky one to remember, not least of all because the past tense of “read” is “read.” That is, because “lead” and “read” rhyme and have similar spellings, it’s reasonable to think that the past tense of “lead” would also be “lead.”
That there’s also a legitimate word spelled “lead” (as in the substance) doesn’t make the distinction any easier to remember.
If you’re as fascinated by word origins as I am, run — don’t walk — to your library and feast your eyes on the Oxford English Dictionary’s lengthy entry on the etymology of “read.” (By the way, if you’re lucky, you may have access to the OED online through your own local library; although I own the condensed version of the dictionary, which is about 20 pounds of book and comes with a magnifying glass in a built-in drawer, it’s sometimes easier on the old eyes to get at the info online.) It turns out that “read” is one of a few words in old Germanic languages to form the past tense via a process known as “reduplication,” which means basically that the word form doesn’t change, or doesn’t change much, when its tense changes. In other words, “read = read”.
“Lead” just happens to belong to another class of words that forms its past tense according to a different rule. And we’re the beneficiaries of all the confusion that difference causes.
I take some flak around here from time to time for coming off as resistant to language change (when in fact I’m not). So when I post about a usage issue that trips a lot of people up, I’m sure to take a few hits in the comments. So, just to be clear: Incorrectly spelling the past tense of “lead” isn’t generally going to cause anybody to misunderstand you. At worst, it’ll make the odd grammar geek grind his (or her? their? them’s? dangit!) teeth. And maybe it actually makes sense to begin embracing simplifications like the one made expedient by this tricky spelling rule. But some people do seem to like to know what’s traditionally considered correct. If you’re such a person, know that the past tense of “lead” is spelled “led.”