Lead and Led

Wednesday's Words 1

English is really tough language. I realize many others may be as well, but I only know this one (and good for all of you who manage more than one!).

A while ago I published a post on the most miserable, most misunderstood, and most misused words in the English language: Lie and lay. Two small words, but because they borrow from each other, they can be totally confusing.

Then a reader (who wishes to remain anonymous) asked me about these two words — lead and led. Yikes. They’re right up there with lie and lay because they switch pronunciation, depending on whether they’re being used as a verb, an adjective, or a noun. 


Let’s start with to lead, the verb, which is pronounced as if it were written LEED.  

  • Shannon will lead the parade tomorrow.
  • Don plans to lead us in song at the festival.
  • Frank leads the choir every week at practice.
  • That boxer will probably lead with his strong right hook.
  • I think the black horse will lead the race from start to finish!
  • “You can lead a horse to water . . . “


When the verb to lead is used in the past tense, however, both the spelling and the pronunciation change to LED.

  • I have led that program many times.
  • John led us to the right place after all!
  • Mary and Sally have led us to the correct conclusion each time.
  • I have been led astray by a charlatan!
  • Charles was led to believe it is true.
  • Susan led the grammar class last Wednesday.
  • That boxer led with his strong right hook.
  • Charlotte led her horse to the water, and it drank.


BUT: When to lead is paired with “did,” its pronunciation  reverts to “leed”: 

  • Frank did lead his choir practice last night.
  • Charlotte did lead her horse to the water.
  • Susan did lead the grammar class last week.


When we use lead as a noun, we get into trouble because the pronunciation can be either LED or LEED for the noun. 

Used as a NOUN — pronounced LED:

  • We have found some lead paint in the house.
  • Lead is a heavy metal.
  • Get the lead out, McDuff!
  • After the race, the runners’ legs felt like lead.


Used as a NOUN — pronounced LEED:

  • Amy has the lead in that program.
  • Charles said he will take the lead in that workshop.
  • Lead on, McDuff!

Used as an ADJECTIVE — pronounced LEED:

  • Amy has the lead role in the new play!
  • The ’64 Ford Mustang was the lead car in the show.
  • The lead leg of that race is the hardest for many runners.

Awful, isn’t it?  And what’s worse (to me, anyway) is that I cannot find an answer on whether “lead” in “lead paint” is an adjective describing paint, or if the phrase “lead paint” is considered a compound noun. Either way, however, in that phrase, lead is pronounced “led.”

I hope I haven’t scared anyone away from using these words, but I also hope that we take care to use the correct one, both in speech and in writing. Depending on spellcheck won’t work; these words are all spelled correctly. It’s up to us as writers to know the difference — or find a good synonym!