Writers Talk About Writing
Flash Card: Lead, Led and Led Zeppelin
"Though neither is a parent, the two equated their time on 'Ruby' to the demands of caring for a newborn, as lack of sleep lead to irritability and short tempers."
I suspect whoever edited this passage from a feature on the film "Ruby Sparks," starring screenwriter Zoe Kazan and her boyfriend, Paul Dano, was also suffering from sleep deprivation — it should say "led to irritability and short tempers," of course, not "lead to irritability and short tempers."
If even the copy editors at the Los Angeles Times are misspelling "led" as "lead," what are the rest of us poor slobs supposed to do?
Before we proceed with today's lesson, let's talk about lead: atomic number 82, chemical symbol Pb, from plumbum, the Latin word for waterworks. ("Plumbum" — we really should bring that one back — is also the root of "plumber." Yes, that's why there's a silent "b" in "plumber.")
According to the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility: "The ancient Romans used lead to make water pipes, some of which are still in use today. Unfortunately for the ancient Romans, lead is a cumulative poison and the decline of the Roman empire has been blamed, in part, on lead in the water supply."
Lead is dense and thus handy for blocking radiation. Unfortunately, it also has the potential to make us look dense because though spelled like the present tense of the verb "lead" (long "e," as in "You can lead a horse to water"), it's pronounced "led," like the past tense of the verb "lead." Indeed, the element lead and the past tense "led" are homophones — ay, there's the rub. So the element lead, which, for the average person, doesn't come up all that much, frequently stands in for "led," the much more commonly invoked past tense of the verb "lead."
Lead is a heavy metal, which seems fitting as my solution to the "lead/led" problem is rock-related; ladies and gentlemen, I give you Led Zeppelin, who provide succor in this matter by having purposefully misspelled the element lead in their name.
According to Wikipedia: "One account of how the new band's name was chosen held that [drummer for the Who Keith] Moon and [bassist for the Who John] Entwistle had suggested that [their] supergroup with [Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimi] Page and [Yardbirds guitarist Jeff] Beck would go down like a 'lead balloon,' a British idiom for disastrous results.
"The group dropped the 'a' in lead at the suggestion of their manager, Peter Grant, so that those unfamiliar with the phrase would not pronounce it 'leed.' The word 'balloon' was transformed into 'zeppelin,' perhaps an exaggeration of the humour, and to Page the name conjured the perfect combination of heavy and light, combustibility and grace."
For our purposes, the hero of this story is Peter Grant. He understood that, in the context of a sentence, people don't confuse the present tense of the verb "lead" with the element lead. (To paraphrase Homer Simpson, "Rock managers — is there anything they don't know?") You don't read "Lead paint remains a serious hazard" as "Leed paint remains a serious hazard." Similarly, you don't read "You can lead a horse to water" as "You can led a horse to water." Outside the context of a sentence, however, it's not unreasonable to see how someone might pronounce "Lead Zeppelin" as "Leed Zeppelin."
Led Zeppelin disbanded in 1980 after the death of drummer John Bonham. Though Zeppelin still lives large on classic-rock radio (and in my heart), the band itself is a thing of the past — the past, as in the past tense.
When you encounter a circumstance in which you're not sure if "lead" or "led" is the correct choice, think about the context of the sentence; are you talking about something related to the element lead or something that simply occurred in the past? If the latter, call upon Led Zeppelin (again, a thing of the past) and go with "led."
RE: "Think about the context of the sentence," just do it — lest you find yourself in a pair of lead overshoes (which has invariably led to swimming with the fishes).
In future episodes, I'll plumb the depths of compliment/complement, lose/loose and perhaps even palate/palette/pallet. If you have more grist for this mill (and we know you do), leave a comment below!