Q: I notice more and more the spelling “lead” where “led” is intended. Is this a case of evolution? Or merely a misspelling?
A: The only standard past tense and past participle of the verb “lead” is “led.” All ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult (five American and five British) agree on this.
But as you’ve noticed, the past and participle are sometimes written as “lead,” though this isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s a usage that’s been criticized since the late 19th century, if not earlier.
For example, a paper analyzing the writing of students applying for admission to Harvard College in 1896 found that “led” and “lead” were among “a large class of misspelled words that indicate a difficulty in deciding between ‘e’ (or ‘ee’ ) and ‘ea.’ ”
In the paper, “Sub-freshman English,” Adams Sherman Hill and Elizabeth Aborn Withey report that Harvard applicants misspelled the metal “lead” as “led,” and the past tense and past participle “led” as “lead” (Educational Review, December 1897).
Why the mix-ups? Merriam-Webster, one of the standard dictionaries mentioned above, says confusion over the pronunciations of the various words “lead” (the noun for a metal, the verb for going ahead, the adjective for most important, etc.) results in confusion over the spellings.
“The homophonic confusion leads to homographic confusion, and you will therefore occasionally see lead in constructions where led is called for (as in, ‘She lead the ducklings to safety’ instead of ‘She led the ducklings to safety’),” the dictionary says in a usage note, “When to Use Lead or Led.”
We’d add that “lead” belongs to the same class of irregular verbs as “bleed,” “breed,” and “feed.” Like them, it forms the past and past participle with a short “e” (“bled,” “bred,” “fed”).
We suspect that the people who write “lead” for the past and past participle pronounce the word as if it were spelled “led,” along the lines of “read,” which is pronounced like “red” in its past forms.
As it turns out, the past and past participle of “lead” have been spelled all sorts of way since the verb appeared in Anglo-Saxon times as lædan. In Old English, for example, the past tense was lædde and the past participle læded.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example, which uses the past tense, is from an early eighth-century Old English translation of the Book of Psalms: “Astigende in heanisse gehefte lædde heftned” (“You ascended on high; you led your captives in captivity”). From the Vespasian Psalter, Psalm 68:18.
In Middle English, the tense forms were written in many different ways: the past as leaded, ledd, ledde, and so on, and the past participle as læded, læd, ledde, etc. The “led” spelling first appeared in Middle English for both the past and past participle, but some of the other spellings were still seen in early Modern English.