Plumbing the depths

Every writer has a stand-out grammatical pet peeve, and here’s mine: people thinking the past tense of “lead” is “lead”.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I get it. The English language is incredibly inconsistent and full of pitfalls like this. And I completely get why this particular error is so easy to commit:

There’s the fact that the verb “to read” is one of the first we all learn. In the present (or infinitive) tense, as in “I need you to read me this book”, need/read rhyme. In the past tense, as in “I tucked him into bed and read him a story”, bed/read rhyme. The word doesn’t change spelling, it only changes pronunciation. And since “lead” is spelled the same except for the first letter, it must follow the same rule, right? Same spelling, different pronunciation based on tense.

Except no. The past tense of “lead” is “led”. Which I suppose to a lot of people seems wrong. If you change “read” to “red” then you’re talking about something completely unrelated.

Also complicating things is the fact that “lead” pronounced exactly like “led” is a real word, as in the metallic element, and fairly commonly used as well. So, again, all sorts of opportunities for confusion.

Why does this particular mix-up grind my gears more than any other? I have no idea. Maybe it’s because I feel like if I can get it straight in my head, everyone else should be able to, too. Maybe it’s because of that old Encyclopedia Brown story where the solution hinged on some kid trying to bluff that “misled” was the past tense of “misle” instead of “mislead”. Maybe it’s blue car syndrome, where I feel like I see it constantly, including in professional publications and not just casual correspondence.

The weird thing is, deep down I’m really not a prescriptivist. The fact that the English language is constantly evolving is something I genuinely love about it, a feature, not a bug. And the more I see “lead” in past tense usage, the more I know we’re getting closer and closer to dictionaries officially recognizing that as an acceptable, alternate spelling. So I’m not going to mount a campaign against it or anything. But it will always be one of those little things that make me do a double-take.