Lead vs. led?

Led is the past participle of the verb lead, but it sounds the same as the metal lead. The metal lead and the verb lead have completely different meanings, and we only use the word led when discussing the verb in the past tense.

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What is the difference between lead vs. led?

Lead and led are commonly confused words because the word lead carries two different meanings, and because lead and led are homophones (sometimes). The two ways to understand lead involves whether we’re talking about leadership or metal, which are two separate topics. 

Metal vs. leadership

If you’re discussing the heavy metal lead, the word led is not related whatsoever. Metal is a shiny material that conducts electricity. Outside of the element lead, other metal examples include copper, gold, or silver. In contrast, leadership is an action and a role where somebody is responsible for other people, places, or things. 

Regardless of the context, a leader is a person with a leadership role, where they are in command of others, they construct guidelines, and set an example of the type of standards they enforce. Somebody who is a boss, manager, teacher, coach, or representative are all theoretical examples of a leader. 

When it comes to leadership, the words lead and led are merely describing the action of leadership: to lead. But, sometimes, the word lead is a noun when it’s used to describe the person who’s in the role of leadership. The word lead is the imperative and infinitive form of the verb ‘to lead,’ which is additionally written for the present tense. The word led is simply the past participle of the verb lead

Alternatively, lead is also a noun for unrelated subjects like water channels, nail measurements, or British dog leashes and lead-metal objects. We know, it’s kind of confusing, but don’t be discouraged! If we stick to lead vs. led in terms of leadership, learning the difference between the terms is simple. 

Lead and led are homophones, sometimes

If we’re writing about a leader or the topic of leadership, the word led is simply the past participle form of the verb lead. However, when lead is a metal, it’s pronounced the same as led. In this case, lead and led are homophones because they’re spelled differently and pronounced the same. But this only applies to lead as a metal vs. led as the past tense form of lead

How to pronounce lead vs. led

The word lead of “leader” or “leadership” is pronounced as “leed,” with one syllable and a long e sound. The metal lead and led (the past-tenses of lead) is pronounced as “leh-d,” and with one syllable and a short e sound. 

Another way to learn their pronunciation is to look at which words rhyme with lead and led in their specific contexts:

Words that rhyme with lead (metal) and led:

  • Bed 
  • Dead
  • Said
  • Head

Words that rhyme with lead (leadership):

  • Need
  • Seed
  • Feed
  • Bead

What does lead mean? (metal)

The soft, metallic element of lead is an attributive noun that represents objects they’re apart of, whether its bullets, tetraethyl lead, the graphite in pencils, the spacers used within press printing, or “leads” for roofing and window materials. It’s common to use the word lead as a noun in phrases such as,

“The atomic number of lead is 82.”
Lead is found on the periodic table of elements.” 
“I need a lead pencil.”
“We’re using lead paint.”

British English speakers also use plural leads as a noun while referring to their roofs or windowpane frames (which are made of lead, go-figure). For example,

“The snow-covered leads.” 
“He’s fixing the leads.”

The word lead, as a type of metal, is also used for transitive verbs to describe an action that utilizes the element. The verb lead might include covering something with lead, fixing window glass frames with lead, placing space between lines in a typeset, or mixing lead with another compound or alloy.

For example, 

“I buy leaded gasoline.”
“Can you fill it with unleaded gasoline?”

What does lead mean? (non-metal)

The other common way to use the word lead is while discussing the act of leadership in some form. In this context, the word lead is defined as a verb or a noun to describe the act of commanding or directing other people or animals to follow them.

What does led mean?

The word led is used as the past tense of lead, but there are instances when it’s used for the present and future tenses, as well. 

For example,

Simple past-tense: led
Present perfect: have led
Future perfect: will have led
Past perfect: had led
Perfect participle: having led

Verb definitions for lead and led

To make our understanding of led vs. lead more simple, let’s take a look at the different ways we can define them together: 

1.) To direct or show a path of direction to a person or animal. 

Examples of lead:

“This highway leads to the city.” 
“A tour guide can lead us through the city.”

Examples of led:

“The hallway led to an empty bedroom.”
“She led us to the museum.”

2.) To be in charge or command of someone or something else, or to organize a group or process. 

Examples of lead:

“She will lead the workshop today.”
“I’ll lead you through your math homework.”

Examples of led:

“She led us through a writing style workshop.”
“His guidance led me to where I am today.”

3.) To have an advantage or to be ahead over competitors.

Examples of lead:

“The Portland Trail Blazers lead 5-0 over the Memphis Grizzlies.”
“The point guard will lead the team tonight.” 

Examples of led:

“The Chicago Bulls were once led by Phil Jackson.”
“Damian Lillard led the game by 30 points.” 

4.) To be superior in skill over competitors or colleagues. 

Example of lead:

“Robin is in the lead for the first position.”

Examples of led:

“He led the game outright and placed first.”

5.) To have experience in a particular lifestyle or discipline.  

Example of lead:

“He now leads a life of solitude.” 

Example of led:

“They led a life of honor.”

Phrases with the verbs lead or led

There are also particular phrases using the verb lead that we use for certain contexts, such as “lead with,” “lead off with,” or “lead to,” which is shown in the first definition, as well. 

Lead to” conveys there’s a route, direction, or point of entry to a specific course or destination. 

Example of lead:

“All paths lead to Rome.”

Example of led:

“All rivers led to the ocean.”

We can also use “lead to” to convey that one event caused a different activity to occur.

Examples of lead:

“Smoking leads to lung disease.”

Examples of led:

“Bill Wilson’s drinking problem led to the start of AA.”

We might find the phrases “lead with” or “lead off with” in sentences conveying a beginning or start. 

Examples of lead:

“The show always leads off with a segment on social media.” 
“I will lead with the vocals.” 

Examples of led:

“The show led off with a segment on Tik Tok.”
“They led with harmony.” 

The phrase “lead with” is also used for describing the sport of boxing, where a boxer’s strike “leads with” a specific direction.

Examples of lead:

“Tyson leads with a right for a historic knockout.” 

Examples of led:

“Tyson led with a right hook.” 

Definition of lead as a noun

The following definitions of the noun lead do not involve led, as they are non-conducive to word’s verb form.  

1.) An example that is followed or the initiative of action.

“Sweden has taken the lead for global clean energy solutions.”

2.) A hint, clue, or piece of valuable information that allows one to solve a problem or find an opportunity. For example,

“We have a lead to finding out who committed the crime.”
“I’m searching for job leads before revising my resume.” 
“Starting a website can help business owners generate new client leads.”

3.) The person who starts a turn in a game. 

“It’s Sarah’s lead.”
“Whoever is to the right of a dealer has the first lead.”

4.) A person or team of competitors that are winning or in the first place. 

“Oakland Athletics have the lead.”
“Brenda is in the lead for most gift cards sold.”

5.) The primary role in a film or play, or the main performer in an entertainment group. 

“Jonathan is playing the lead in the musical Hamilton.”
“Syd is the lead vocalist of The Internet.”

6.) The first story presented in a newspaper or news broadcast, typically the most important story of the day. 

“Today’s lead story involves…” 
“The lead headline on USA Today’s cover contains a typo.” 

7.) A British term for a leash that’s used to restrain a domestic animal.

“When it’s time to walk the dog, be sure to use a lead.” 

8.) An electric wire that connects two circuits or the wiring that connects an appliance to an energy source. 

“To avoid electrocution, avoid touching exposed leads.” 

9.) One full turn of a screw nail. For example,

“Before using a mechanical screwdriver, place the screw nail on the board and turn for one lead, so that the first thread is inserted completely.”

10.) A channel of water within a region of ice. 

“There are far more leads in the arctic ocean that allow ships to dredge through melting ice fields.”

Is lead an adjective?

The word lead is an adjective when it’s noun definition is used descriptively. More specifically, we use lead as an adjective if it describes something as being the highest rank or as having the most authority. 

For example,

“The lead actor receives the most attention.” 

Synonyms:

Chief, commanding, head, presiding, primary, principal, supreme, top.

Antonyms:

Inferior, lesser, lower, secondary, subordinate.

How to use lead and led in a sentence?

The words lead and led are conjugations of the infinitive verb “to lead,” meaning the verb’s varied forms help writers indicate tense, number, people, narrative voice, and sometimes, a sentence’s mood. Overall, we can conjugate “to lead” into lead, leading, and led. Let’s take a look at the different ways we can use each form.

How to use lead in a sentence

Present tense

We use the verb lead in the present tense to describe the action as it happens or as an action that currently exists. If we use the word lead after the pronouns she, he, or it, be sure to use leads with an “s.” 

Example sentences

“Watch as I lead you through the following writing tips.”
“She leads a quiet life these days.” 

Future tense

The future tense describes the verb lead as an action that has not yet happened but will occur in the future. For this tense, be sure to use “will lead” after the sentence subject. 

Example sentences

“I will lead you through the English language.”
“They will lead the way.”

How to use led in a sentence

Simple past tense

The preterite or simple past tense verb form of lead is written as led to describe something that already occurred. 

Example sentences

“He led a writing class.”
“We led a group of grammar students.”

Present perfect tense

We use led for the present perfect tense to describe an action that occurred in the indefinite past or began in the past to continue into the present. For this particular tense, we use “have led” after I, you, we, or they, and “has led” after he, she, or it.

Example sentences

“I have led a simple life.”
“It has led us to nowhere.”
“We have led an army before.” 

Future perfect tense

The verb led is written for the future perfect tense to indicate that an action will have ended by a certain point in the future. Hence, we use “will have” in front of the past participle.

Example sentences

“She will have led a class by then.”
“They will have led a writing workshop by then.”

Past perfect tense

We use led in the past perfect tense to describe how the action was completed in the past or before a different event occurred. 

Example sentences

“Before I attended Stanford, I had led online discussions on the English language.”
“They had led generations through the triumphs of literature.”

How to use leading in a sentence

Leading is the present participle of the verb lead, and we only use “leading” in the present, past, or future tenses to describe an ongoing, continuous action. 

Present continuous tense

The verb leading occurs in the present continuous tense, otherwise known as the present progressive, to describe a continuous action in the present moment. For the first person, “I,” be sure to use “am leading.” You, we, and they subject pronouns use “are leading,” and she, he, or it subjects are written as “is leading.” 

Example sentences

“I am leading a company.”
“You are leading a business.”
“She is leading a country.”
“They are leading the masses.” 

Past continuous tense

The past continuous tense describes how the verb lead occurred in a past continuous manner. We use “was leading” for first-person “I” or she, he, or it subject pronouns. For you, we, or they, use “were leading.” 

Example sentences

“I was leading the dog.”
“You were leading the dog with a leash.”
“It was leading us to the fountain.” 
“We were leading a pack of dogs.”

Future continuous tense

We use “will be leading” for the future continuous tense to express how the act will continuously occur in the future, but for a specific amount of time. 

Example sentences

“You will be leading a workshop on commonly confused words.”
“They will be leading a study on commonly confused words.”

Present perfect continuous tense

If an action began in the past and progressed into the present moment, we use the present perfect continuous tense. For I, you, we, or they subject pronouns, use “have been leading,” but for she, he, or it, use “has been leading.” 

Example sentences

“I have been leading a discussion.”
“He has been leading an organization.”
“We have been leading a small group.”

Past perfect continuous tense

The past perfect continuous tense is different from present perfect continuous because, while the action began in the past, it ended before a different past event. For this specific tense, we use “had been” before leading

Example sentences

“You had been leading us through writing styles.”
“They had been leading a class through professional writing tips.” 

Future perfect continuous tense

We can use leading in the future perfect continuous tense as “will have been leading” to convey how the act began in the past, present, or future and that it’s assumed to continue indefinitely. 

Example sentences

“I will have been leading the hike by then.”
“We will have been leading the adventure by then.” 

Test Yourself!

See how well you’ve learned the difference between lead and led with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: the past tense of the verb lead is leaded. 
    a. True
    b. False
  2. Which of the following tenses are not compatible with led
    a. Past continuous
    b. Preterite 
    c. Past present 
    d. Past perfect 
  3. Which is not a definition for led?
    a. To have shown a path of direction to a person or animal.
    b. A British term for a leash that restrains a domestic animal.
    c. To have been in command of someone or something else.
    d. None of the above. 
  4. Which of the following sentences misuses the word lead? 
    a. “Is there a lead pencil?”
    b. “Don’t forget to bring a lead.” 
    c. “Do we have any leads for the story?”
    d. None of the above
  5. Which of the following words do not rhyme with the terms lead and led?
    a. Ted
    b. Bed
    c. Bead
    d. Said
  6. Which of the following examples use the word lead in a present tense verb form?
    a. “He leads an orchestra.” 
    b. “I have led a band.”
    c. “They are leading us away.”
    d. All of the above

Answers

  1. B
  2. A
  3. B
  4. D
  5. C
  6. D

Sources

  1. Conjugation.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  2. Lead.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  3. Lead.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  4. Lead.” The Merriam-Webster.com Thesaraus, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  5. Lead.” Reverso Conjungation, Reverso-Softissimo, 2020.