The word “lead” has many definitions. Too many, really. In fact, somebody should have put a stop to this nonsense a long time ago. But they didn’t and now we have to live with it. So, to help you avoid errors in your work, we’ve prepared a quick guide to the various uses of “lead,” along with some advice about not mixing up the words “lead” and “led.”
Lead (Guidance, Winning, Cables, and Metal)
We can break down the uses of “lead” into four main categories:
Definition 1: Guidance
Perhaps the most common use of “lead” is to mean “guide” or “show the way:”
The GPS will lead us home.
She wanted to lead the expedition.
This is usually a verb (i.e., the act of guiding), but it can also be a noun (i.e., a thing that guides). For example, we could say:
Without a lead to follow, Holmes would never solve the case.
We need to walk the dog, but I can’t find his lead.
Both verb and noun forms here are pronounced to rhyme with “seed.”
Definition 2: Winning
Another use of “lead” is related to winning and success. As above, it can be a verb (i.e., being in an advanced or winning position):
She is leading the field with her research.
Or it can be a noun (i.e., a winning position):
After three laps, he was still in the lead.
This use of “lead” also rhymes with “seed” when spoken.
Definition 3: Electrical Cable
A slightly different use of “lead” is to mean “electrical cable”:
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My laptop died after I lost the lead I needed to charge it.
Despite the difference, this term is also pronounced to rhyme with “seed.”
Definition 4: Heavy Metal
Finally, “lead” is also a soft, heavy metal (or the graphite in a pencil):
The lead paint fumes made him dizzy.
She kept drawing until the lead in her pencil broke.
This use of “lead” is pronounced differently and rhymes with “bed.”
Led (Past Tense of “Lead”)
The word “led” (also pronounced to rhyme with “bed”) is much easier to understand. In all cases, it is the past tense of the verb forms of “lead”:
She led the race from start to finish.
The road led up to the castle.
Just be careful not to mix it up with the initialism LED (pronounced “ell-ee-dee”). This is short for light-emitting diode (a small light used in some electronic products) and not related to the word “lead.”
Summary: Lead or Led?
Whew. That felt like a lot. Let’s review. Depending on context:
Lead (verb, rhymes with “seed”) means “guide” or “be in a winning position.”
Led (verb, rhymes with “bed”) is the past tense of the verb forms of “lead.”
Lead (noun, rhymes with “seed”) can mean “a winning position,” “something that guides,” or “an electrical cable.”
Lead (noun, rhymes with “bed”) means “a soft, heavy metal.”
The main problem is that “led” (the past tense verb) is pronounced the same as “lead” (the metal). But as long as you know the past tense of “lead” is always “led” (no matter the context), it should be easy to avoid mistakes.