Led vs. Lead: What’s the Difference?

The English language has hundreds of different words that trip up writers on a regular basis.

Many of these confusing English words are homophones, words that are pronounced alike but have different meanings and spellings. Another good portion are verbs, with the confusion surrounding proper tense: present tense vs. past tense vs. future tense.

Today’s words have to do with both.

What is the Difference Between Led and Lead?

The main difference between led and lead is tense. Led is the past tense of lead.

  • She leads the way to prosperity.
  • She led the way to prosperity.

One of these examples is happening now (present tense) and the other has already happened (past tense). The problem, however, is that the past tense led is pronounced exactly like lead (a soft, toxic metal).

In this post, I want to cover the meanings of both words, their pronunciations, and how to use each of them in a sentence. Plus, at the end, I will give a tip to remember which is which.

After reading this post, you won’t ever again wonder, “Should I use led or lead?”

When to Use Led

led versus lead ledWhat does led mean? Led (pronounced led; rhymes with bed) is the past tense of lead (pronounced leed) and is defined as to show the way by going in advance; to guide or direct in a course.

  • The general led his troops into battle.
  • The president led the country out of a deep recession.
  • He used it to tame orchestras — notably the unruly New York Philharmonic, which he led for 11 years. –USA Today

As I mentioned above, one of the reasons writers confuse led vs. lead is that the past tense led is pronounced the same as the noun lead, which has a different meaning entirely.

This mistake results from a faulty analogy between the two words read (pronounced reed) and read (pronounced red).

When to Use Lead

Lead (pronounced leed; rhymes with bead) can be used as an adjective, noun, or verb.

  • I am the lead author of this book. (Adjective)
  • After the first half, the Patriots took the lead. (Noun)
  • Will you lead the discussion in today’s meeting? (Verb)

All of these meanings of lead have to do with being in charge, being ahead, or being in front and are pronounced leed.

lead past tense versus ledLead (pronounced led; rhymes with bed) is a noun and refers to a metallic element. For example, when you see gasoline signs that say “unleaded gas,” this is sense that they mean.

  • This car takes unleaded gas only.
  • Don’t break the lead in my pencil.
  • The lead bullet was traveling at 1,000 feet per second.

Trick to Remember the Difference

Here’s a helpful trick to remember lead vs. led. The usual mistake is to use lead when you mean led.

  • He lead the troops to victory. (Wrong)
  • He led the troops to victory. (Correct)

In other words, you need a way to remember that only led is the correct past tense of lead. Try this,

If you can substitute the words guided or directed into your sentence, you should be using the three-letter led.

  • Phil Jackson led the Chicago Bulls to the championship.
  • Phil Jackson guided the Chicago Bulls to the championship.
  • Phil Jackson directed the Chicago Bulls to the championship.

Summary

Is it lead or led?

Led is lead past tense. This is its only use. Do not confuse it with the metal lead.

Lead is a present tense verb, meaning to guide. It also is a noun that refers to a metallic element, e.g., a lead pipe.