The past tense of the verb to lead (pronounced /leed/) gives some English-speakers as much trouble as the past tenses of lay and lie.
The prevalence of past tense led misspelled as lead on amateur blogs and social media like Reddit is not surprising. To see the misspelling in the writing of professional journalists and academics, however, is discouraging.
Here are a few examples of the erroneous usage by people who should know better:
To kill a Mocking Bird lead the GAR voting from the first week, and kept the lead for the entire five months of voting.—Public Broadcasting System (PBS).
[Note: GAR (Great American Read) was a survey that asked readers to choose the “greatest” American novel from a limited list of possibilities.]
Poor infrastructure, storage and maintenance at health centers has lead to damaged or expired drugs, resulting in either ineffective medical treatment or patients who do not have access to the drugs they need.—Academic journal published by the University of Pennsylvania law school.
[Two faults in this one: misspelled verb and faulty subject/verb agreement.]
The Extinction of Ice Age Mammals May Have Lead to the Rise of Civilization—Real Clear Science
Marked Edema: Low albumin, immobility, and venous insufficiency have lead to accumulation of fluid in lower extremity.—GrepMed, a professional reference site for medical doctors
By contrast, Thatcher’s Conservative government had lead the Labour opposition in the opinion polls for much of the previous 6 months, often by double digits.—Academic paper by Yale scholar
Past forms of lead, pronounced /led/ and spelled led
(corrected forms from examples of misuse given above)
To kill a Mocking Bird led the GAR voting from the first week.
Poor infrastructure, storage and maintenance at health centers have led to damaged or expired drugs.
The Extinction of Ice Age Mammals May Have Led to the Rise of Civilization—
By contrast, Thatcher’s Conservative government had led the Labour opposition in the opinion polls for much of the previous 6 months, often by double digits.
A reason, but no excuse
There’s a neurological reason that intelligent speakers who pronounce the present and past forms of the verb to lead correctly in speech fail to spell the past form correctly in writing.
The most likely answer is that they look at the verb lead (/leed/) and subconsciously associate it with the verb read (/reed)/.
Their brains know there is a word spelled lead that’s pronounced /led/. Their brains also know that the verb read can be pronounced as either /reed/ or /red/. Ergo, they force the verb lead to conform to the past tense spelling of read.
That’s an explanation, but not an excuse.
Some English spelling is eccentric. English speakers who wish to write standard English must learn to deal with it. It’s not as if the verb to lead were rarely used. I’m pretty sure that children can be expected to get the hang of it by the time they complete Eighth Grade. Grown-ups who are still making the error can take five minutes to master the concept.
The only way to avoid this particular misspelling is to come to grips with the fact that the verb lead /leed/ is not analogous to the verb read /reed/ and /red/.
read, read, has read
lead, led, has led