You may lead a discussion, a writers’ group or a parade — but how do you explain your role when it happened in the past?
It may seem like a little thing, but for some of us (ahem, like me), the past tense of “lead” is actually pretty elusive. After all, there’s another word that sounds exactly like it in our language…and it’s a noun (✏️) that’s spelled exactly like the present tense of the verb.
If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is! But don’t worry, you’re allowed to be confused. And you’re also allowed to learn the simple rule that’ll keep you from ever having to type the phrase “past tense of lead” into Google again.
In this post, we lead you into a more comprehensive understanding of this tricky tense change — and give you a mnemonic to ensure you never forget the past tense of lead again!
Okay, so: What’s the past tense of lead?
Lead is, in most cases, a verb meaning to guide, initiate, conduct, or show. It can also sometimes be used in noun form to refer to the person or entity in the leading position.
The past tense of “lead” is “led,” which is not to be confused with the separate and distinct noun, “lead,” which sounds the same, but refers to the stuff you find inside your pencil.
Okay, okay — to be fair, there actually isn’t any real lead in modern day pencils, because, as we now know, the stuff is pretty darn toxic. Rather, the “lead” we refer to when we’re talking about our favorite erasable writing instrument is actually graphite, which Wikipedia informs us is “a crystalline form of the element carbon with its atoms arranged in a hexagonal structure.” Along with leaving marks on paper, it’s also used in batteries, electrodes, solar panels and even lubricants. Go figure!
But anyway, that’s the short answer to the question. Here’s an example of what it looks like.
Today, I will lead the Halloween parade. I’m excited to wear my pumpkin costume!
Two weeks ago, I led the stand-up meeting… but these days, my intern has been giving it a try.
Like we said above, it seems simple enough. But any writer who’s been at it for a while knows how easily these simple changes can slip out of our minds.
So what can you do to remember the difference forever?
Here’s an easy way to remember the past tense of lead
Although “lead” (like the material) and “led” (like the past tense of the verb lead) sound the same, they have very different meanings. But if you can remember this one simple rule, you’ll never accidentally use the wrong one again.
The past tense of “lead” is a word with three letters. Which makes sense, since we lose a bit of immediacy when we’re talking about something that happened in the past.
Thus, you can always remember that you make the word “lead” past tense by taking something away from it (namely, the letter “a”) — whereas the word referring to the stuff that isn’t actually in pencils is its whole, own separate concept.
The past tense of “lead” is “led,” whereas the homophone “lead” is a physical element.
There you have it! Now go forth and be leaders in the correct use of this finicky verb.
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