Lead and led are commonly mixed up in writing, but the words have different contextual meanings. There are specific grammatical rules for using led and lead, so knowing the difference will help your writing look smarter and ensure there is no confusion for anyone reading it.
Led (which rhymes with head) is the past tense of the verb lead (which rhymes with need). Aside from the similar spellings, people might get confused because they assume lead will follow the same pattern as a similar-looking verb like read. The past tense of read is read. The past tense of lead is led.
Before looking at the different uses of led and lead, let’s first look at what lead means. Lead is an irregular verb that has several different meanings:
Lead can mean to be in front, especially in a sports game or a race.
Lead can mean to be at the head of something, like lead a country or a mission. Obviously, it’s related to the word leader.
Lead can mean to show the way to someone by being in front. In this case, lead is a synonym of the verb guide.
Lead can mean to go in a particular direction (by way of following something).
Lead can also specifically be used as a verb to describe the action of living (one’s life).
Note: Lead can also be a noun with several different meanings: the lead (which rhymes with need) in a play or film is the main actor/actress; a lead can be a wire cord that connects an electrical device to a socket; a lead can be the long rope-like device used to hold an animal, especially a dog or horse, like a leash. Lead (which here rhymes with head) is a metallic element; lead is also used to describe the material used in a pencil.
In all the cases listed above with lead as a verb, led is used as the past tense.
Note: If you see the word LED in capitalized form, it is not the past tense of lead but an acronym for light emitting diode, e.g. LED lights.
We have seen that lead has several meanings, but it is chiefly used as verb to mean to be at the head of something or to be in front in a race, game etc. It can be useful (sometimes) to think of lead as the opposite of the verb to follow. As lead is a verb, it must agree with its subject.
The best trick to remember the difference between led and lead is to focus on the last two letters, ‘ed’, in led. We know that many regular verbs in the past tense end in ‘ed’, so it can help us remember that led is the past tense of lead.
You can also double check the usage of led by substituting a past tense verb that is a synonym.