What Does It Mean To Lead Someone On?

Leading Someone On Meaning

Definition: To guide someone towards something; to encourage romantic pursuit without the intent of returning romantic feelings.

Origin of Lead Someone On

This idiom has two definitions, one that is literal and one that is figurative.

The literal meaning uses lead in the sense of showing the way. The figurative meaning occurs in the context of romantic or sexual relationships.

The figurative meaning dates all the way back the to 1500s. Originally, it could mean any type of encouraging someone to proceed through deception. Nowadays, it almost exclusively refers to one person flirting with another in order to earn that person’s affections, despite the flirting person not actually being romantically interested in the other.

People often apply this expression towards a woman who is leading a man on, although there is nothing in the definition that says it must be used this way.

Examples of Lead Someone On

what does leading someone on meanIn this dialogue, a brother and sister are discussing some problems that the woman is having at work.

Maria: There’s been a new development with the new manager. Do you remember that I was complaining about him before?

Franco: What happened now?

Maria: He is in trouble for sexual harassment. He claims that his secretary was leading him on by flirting with him. He decided to try to kiss her, so she complained to HR.

Franco: Will he get in trouble?

Maria: Maybe. There is no evidence that his secretary was leading him on, but there is evidence that he was sexually harassing her.

what does leading you on meanThe second example shows two university students who discussing their romantic lives.

Lorenzo: I’m not sure if I should ask Clara out on a date.

Alba: Do you mean the other woman in our class? Sure! Why not?

Lorenzo: Sometimes I think she likes me. Other times I think she’s just being friendly. And sometimes I even think that she is leading me on. Sometimes she is obviously flirting with me and other times she ignores me.

Alba: Maybe you should just ask her how she feels.

More Examples

The excerpt below is from a story about a relationship.

  • She led him on and broke his heart, for about two years. Each time, I was there to pick up the pieces. I loved him. –LA Times

This excerpt is from an article about rape on college campuses.

  • In court filings, Yu claims the encounter was consensual and that Vassar ignored evidence, such as the female student’s friendly Facebook messages saying she had “a wonderful time” and was “really sorry” she led him on. –LA Times


The phrase to lead someone on means to suggest that you want a romantic relationship that you don’t really intend to engage in.