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Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewbain/548574614/

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.”

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  1. If you can’t speak write words.
    If you can’t sing write lyrics.
    If you can’t see, hear words.
    If you can’t dance write music.
    If you have feelings write them down
    If you can’t hear, write with words.
    If you are a comedian write jokes.
    If you are a writer write books.
    If you are an artist paint.
    If you are an artist share that beauty.
    If you don’t know, then try,
    If you don’t try, you will not know.
    If you don’t start, you will die not knowing.
    Embrace you. You are worth it.

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  2. Daryl,

    You post the most interesting, most thought-provoking, and sometimes the most irritating articles;) But hey, shouldn’t “trips a lot of people up” be “trips up a lot of people” ? My infuriating personal editorial perfectionist thinks the latter, but I have to admit that I am also only human no matter what the pedantic old-school writer in me wants to believe.

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    1. You may not be surprised to learn that I actually considered both “trips up” options. I opted to split the particle from the main verb (see my recent post on phrasal verbs!) because it’s a little less formal (this is a post that includes the word “dangit,” after all) and because I liked the rhythm better. It’s perfectly grammatical; consider the variant “trips him up,” for which you’d never substitute “trips up him.” Your suggestion is perfectly grammatical too, of course.

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      1. BTW, I was the fortunate recipient of the entire 12 volmues of the OED plus the next two supplements. . I’ve carried it with me to several different addresses and still can’t bear to part with it–although I hate dusting it like the dickens!

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      2. I think the rhythm works both ways. ‘Up’ at the end actually gives a quite tight closure, so my preference was for trips up … people, which I found more relaxed. Totally personal preference here. I think.

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  3. ‘Lead’ and ‘Led’ are not pronounced the same, unless the ‘Lead’ you are talking about is in gasoline and then it is pronounced the same as ‘Led’. Very confusing words.

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    1. Right. “Lead” and (present tense) “read” rhyme, and “led” and (past tense) “read” rhyme, though, so it’s not unreasonable to assume congruent spellings to go along with congruent pronunciations.

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  4. Not being a learned person of the written word kind, and working around other pedantic-like feelings towards some areas in my life, for to be too pedantic about anything’ can be a sign of head and brain issues, I know’ I live with pedantic like symptoms around thing’s every day, hey’ just thought I’d mention that odd asides, best wishes

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  5. I recently found this out on my own when writing. I was using the word Lead when it was suppose to be led, and suddenly wondered, “It’s lead a metal, not the past tense of lead?” And indeed I was right.
    Good post!

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  6. I absolutely love stuff like this….and I own the condensed OED, too. My poetry professor in college told me it was something critically necessary to own if I meant to be a serious writer. I’ve never regretted the expense, although I do find that my subscription to Merriam-Webster’s unabridged online dictionary is as essential as my OED. (And yes, MUCH easier on the eyes!) Thanks for a great post.

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  7. Props on this one…Props. verb-age is very important. Never to be underestimated. Check yourself. Greek translation, lol, awesome.
    Thank you for the reminder as my edit’s and grammar are desperately in need of a “check” (;

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  8. “Read” and “lead” are a little confusing to us Chinese in learning English, but compared with China’s invention of a new set of simplified characters for people to learn Chinese, it is nothing. Now, Mainland people have difficulty to read writings from Taiwan and Hong Kong and before 1950s and Mainland college graduates not majoring classic Chinese encounter additional difficulties in reading classic Chinese. Educated Chinese cannot read Chinese. That is the problem.

    Your difficulties are left behind by history, but our difficulties are created by ourselves.

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  9. I am such a word geek, I loved this post. But when you were talking about read and lead (which rhyme with greed, NOT led), I immediately thought of lede. I wonder how many people still know what a lede is? I learned about that one in high school journalism.

    Told you I’m a word geek…

    Loved this post. Great job!

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    1. Hmm, you’re the second person to say that it seemed as if I was saying “read” rhymes with “led.” Well, it does, but it also doesn’t. (Hence some of the confusion.) Present-tense “lead” rhymes with present-tense “read,” both of which rhyme with “greed.” Past tense “led” rhymes with past tense “read” (both of which rhyme with “bed”), and my point is that it’s therefore not unreasonable to think that the past-tense form of “lead” (“led”) might be spelled such that it resembles the rhyming past-tense form of “read” (“read” — so “lead”).

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      1. Right. I understand. But I was wondering if anyone knows what a lede is… rhyming with greed…? Journalism term. It just popped into my mind with all the lead-read-greed, led-read-bed discussion.

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      2. Summer
        Summer sunshine
        Breezes blowing
        Flowers growing
        Children laughing
        Mowers cutting
        Ice cream tasting
        Barbeque cooking
        Children laughing
        Car washing
        Beach walking
        Lake fishing
        Sun bathing
        Skin burning
        Calamine lotion
        Models posing
        Yachts sailing
        Kayaks paddling
        Waves rolling
        Birds singing
        Magpies squawking
        Squirrels chatting
        Cats dozing
        Families shopping
        Children moaning
        Motorbikes blaring
        Swimming crowded
        Water splashing
        Insects stinging
        Bees buzzing
        Ants running
        Butterflies flitting
        Flowing rivers
        Wind blowing
        Garden growing
        Flowing rivers
        Apples growing
        Ducks waddling
        Ducklings following
        Floods filling
        Fires Burning
        Mudslides killing
        Dogs barking
        Mountain climbing
        Babies crying
        Mother’s shouting
        Trees gently waving
        Gardens growing
        Weeds chocking
        Green beans climbing
        Hammers banging
        Mowers groaning
        Fences painted
        Houses built
        Burgers frying
        Onions smelling
        Hamburgers eaten
        Blossoms smelling
        Trees growing
        Showers falling
        Sunshine glowing
        Farmers plowing
        Cow’s mooing
        Flowers Fragrant
        Daylight hours
        Tennis playing
        Swimming
        Boat racing
        Sports running
        Rock bands playing
        Horseshoe throwing
        Festivals singing
        Fountains dancing
        Golden mornings
        Evening glowing
        Family greeting
        Summer fleeting
        Deer jumping
        Pig’s grunting
        Whales diving
        Vacation fun
        Beautiful sights
        Mountain heights
        Ocean frolics
        Guitar playing
        Dancers swaying
        Market’s displaying
        God’s Glory
        Wonderful Story

        Written by Susan Oliver

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  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!! Just the other day, I finally had to call my learned mother and ask her if the past tense of lead had been changed to lead — I have seen it no less than a dozen times. Fortunately, I find that all is right with the world, and led is still the past tense of the verb to lead. I have no claim to purely correct usage of the English language, but I think I learned this in the second or third grade. Where was everyone else? Led poisoning is a dire problem in this, our literary world!

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  11. I do enjoy reading (not leading) your grammar posts. And the comments that follow. I am left wondering – a serious point here – what is taught in schools or what has been for the last however years???? Because to be honest, are fairly basic. And then, that may be due to my lack of understanding of American English too.

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    1. Most of the picky things I remember about grammar I actually picked up after school, or at least more or less on my own in college. I suppose there were grammar drills, but I’m not convinced that the way we teach grammar is (or was when I was in grade school a few decades ago) really terribly useful. I think it’s much more helpful to absorb it naturally; it’s how you get that almost innate sense of whether things sound right or not, which is a lot more helpful than having to recall a zillion crusty old rules. My five- and eight-year-old speak pretty “correctly” because that’s mostly what they hear at home and what they read in books, not because they’ve learned to diagram sentences and memorize rules.

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  12. I like your grammar posts, on a speaking level I am always fascinated by the fact that American spelling is generally due to the way the word is said and yet fillet as in fish/steak fillet always seems to be said with the letter t dropped, I find this quite strange, not slagging off a nation – it genuinely fascinates me how this came about.

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      1. Great find there and a good read, thanks for the link. I think qv some of your earlier posts, we all need a flexible approach to language even while we aspire to using it correctly (within our own sphere). My brain now hurts so off for a nap 🙂

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      2. Interesting read, looks like it is all about the spelling! I work in a clothing store and say Gilet with no t.

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  13. This particular one drives me smack out of my mind. Then there’s “phase” and “faze.” Not to mention letting the computer program get away with hyphenating “qu” words between the “q” and the “u.”

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  14. Now that’s really plumbing the depths of the English language 😉

    It’s good to look at these like-sounding words as it’s all too easy to use the wrong one when typing.

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  15. Loved this! As an author, newspaper reporter, and former English teacher, I have to tell you that you have won my heart with this post! It’s just nice to know somebody else cares ….

    I am glad to say that over the years, I have relaxed my “perfectionist” attitude a good deal — mainly so that I could still have some friends who didn’t dread talking to me — but I am still seriously peeved by all the changes is basic grammar and the use at the college level and beyond of about 6 different grammar texts — all of which now have their own separate rules.

    I used to work as a free-lance editor for grad students, but the last year I did that, almost every student — although at the same university — was in a different college, and each of them had requirements that came from totally different grammar texts. It got to be ridiculous, and I did not enjoy it anymore at all.

    Thanks for the fun I had reading your post.
    Sandra

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  16. I love knowing what is Traditionally Correct — my inner WordGeek revels! And, I also love the way Language Just Evolves — my inner WordGeek revels! So……….thanks, for both:)

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