It’s almost time for #HomophoneHell again (October’s coming up fast!), so I’m getting the jump on it with this post about some of the most troublesome words in English: lead/led, and their rhyming partners read/red. For whatever reason, I don’t see the last ones misused nearly as often as the first ones.
I suspect it has something to do with “red” being a color, and nothing else. “Read” and “read” (the present and past tense of the verb “to read”) aren’t difficult to use. They’re spelled identically, and the pronunciation is easily figured out from context. “I’ll read that later today. I read the first part last night.”
“Led,” though — what’s so hard about that one? It’s nothing except the past tense and past participle of “to lead,” so why is it harder for people to get it right? I seriously don’t know. Logically, it would seem that folks would make the “read/red” error just as often as the “lead/led” error, wouldn’t it? It does to me. (But I’m very odd in some ways, so if it doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry about it.)
Having undertaken a completely unscientific poll on Twitter, I have a few more opinions to present.
@Archie_V says: When looking for the past of “lead,” you say “led” in your, um. hed. Then the metal says “hi!” and you’re screwed.
@cococoyote (who works at Merriam-Webster, by the by) says: Maybe they have trouble with lead/led because of read/red.
@Sesquiotic (James Harbeck) says: Read is the past tense of read, while led is the past tense of lead; red is the odd one out, whereas lead is an ambivalent homophone/homograph.
And @Mededitor (Daniel Sosnoski) says, eloquently: I think Coco’s right.
So, we seem to be leaning toward the patterning being the problem. People understand “read/read/read” (I’ll read that today. I read the other last night. I haven’t read those yet) and know that “red” is the outlier, the word meaning that color you mix with yellow to get orange and with blue to get purple. There’s nothing confusing there.
Led, though — we want the verb to be “lead/lead/lead,” just like “read” is, but it isn’t. “Led” is the past tense and the past participle. What’s worse, “led” rhymes with “lead” as in “that went over like a lead balloon” (please, no Mythbusters references here), meaning the metal/element. It’s not an outlier like “red” is to “read”; it’s the simple past tense of “to lead.” And that’s a problem for some people.
How can you fix it?
Memorize the words. That’s it. It’s that simple (and not). Lead/led/led. I’ll lead the class to the auditorium. She led the choir out into the parking lot. He has led that study group for the last ten years. “Lead” with an A is the present tense OR the metal/element. “Led” is the simple past and the past participle.