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Lead or led?

June 3, 2017

I’m in the middle of what feels like an endless sea of marking, having undertaken marking duties on three Open University courses this summer; and, as usual, when marking so many essays one starts to see patterns across them, new trends in English, new usages, newly popular errors and so on. One that I have seen a great deal of is the use of lead in place of led, as in “The development of the railways lead to the rise of the British seaside resort”, or “Romanticism lead to a new conception of childhood”. I always take a petty, private revenge on this mistake by pronouncing lead to rhyme with feed in my mind as I’m reading.

It’s an interesting mistake, though. It is logical enough, in a way: the word read, for example, changes its pronunciation but not its spelling in the past tense, so why shouldn’t lead? What’s more, the element lead (Pb) is spelt lead but pronounced led. And indeed in American English there’s no such word as led – it’s spelt lead for the present tense, the past tense and the past participle. So one can see why there is a pull to replace led with lead in British English too; and it wouldn’t surprise me if led became obsolete in the next few years.

Incidentally, here’s an interesting fact about the band Led Zeppelin. When they first formed, so I’ve heard, they called themselves Lead Zeppelin – lead as in the metal, that is. I like this surrealist idea of something being made out of a material totally unsuited to its purpose (like Meret Oppenheim’s fur tea-set). But they had to change it to Led as too many people didn’t know how to pronounce it.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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7 Comments
  1. Spiritman permalink

    Ha, I do the same pronunciation thing when reading words like *traveling, which I pronounce tra-VEE-ling and *canceling, can-SEE-ling.

    Good video, by the way; well delivered. And, as a pianist, it’s nice to see a piano in someone’s house for a change. You don’t see it enough these days. 🙂

    • Yes, always nice to see a Joanna, isn’t it. I don’t play very well, though – my daughters are much better than me!

      • Spiritman permalink

        Pretty handy with a uke, though. 😉

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    The Led Zeppelin name has been attributed to both Keith Moon and John Entwistle of The Who. The story goes that on hearing of Jimmy Page’s plan for his new band one of them suggested it would go down like a lead zeppelin, i.e. that much worse than a lead balloon. Page liked the name but changed the spelling to avoid exactly the situation described.

  3. The ‘led’ not being US English confused me, so I asked an American colleague of mine who told me that ‘led’ is very much correct US English and using ‘lead’ in the past tense is wrong. Is this only a regional thing in America perhaps? He’s from New England.

    • Ah – this might simply be my mistake. I wrote without checking. My memory was that I had seen American texts in which the past tense of ‘lead’ is spelt ‘lead’; but it’s very possible either that a) my memory is playing me false or that b) those texts that did spell it like that simply got it wrong. Or then of course it could be as you suggest, that c) there are regional variations in the US. My apologies for not doing my research properly!

      • Thanks Brandon. Not sure if you have any American readers. Would be interesting to hear from them on this.

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