The following is the first hit from Google for "took * by the hand and lead":

Much obliged I took her by the hand and lead her to the gigantic, untouched, crisp bed that awaited our love making.1

Amazingly enough, there were almost 20 million hits for my search phrase, which is a typical but certainly not the only example of mis-declined, umm, leadership. The correct spelling got me a little over 30 million, so you could estimate it's flubbed about 40% of the time, Internet-wide.

Granted, the Internet is full of people who can't spell. For many, English is not their first language. But even among people who are essentially or even very literate in English, this is one particularly insidious writing error which has become my pet peeve. It ranks up there with possessive its has no apostrophe2. Alexandra Erin, author of the otherwise delightful online fantasy blog-story Tales of MU fails her spelling check periodically on this, and although she acknowledges my corrections, she can't seem to keep this factoid in mind. But she is only one of countless other "Internet authors," some of whom make a living from their writing, who can't get this right. Needless to say, E2 has its share of outbreaks of this disease as well.

My guess is that this particular mistake arises from the convergence of several factors:

  • It's just one word, with an irregular declination. No English teacher would spend any appreciable amount of time explaining this one special case.
  • It's not a particularly common word. I found it at number 791 in a word frequency list.3 And that's presumably the sum of the frequencies for both the verb and both nouns.
  • It's plagued with both a homophone and a homograph, as I demonstrate below. It's enough to give a man homophobia!4
  • It's a small enough error that many readers, even those who know better, will miss it. So I find I'm one of few people who are sufficiently sensitive to it to be annoyed by it, and therefore call it out to the authors.

OK, for those who don't get what I'm foaming at the mouth about, here's the story:

The word I'm talking about is the verb "to lead," pronounced "lēd" (rhymes with "weed"): what leaders do.

It has a heteronym, "lead," pronounced "lēd" like the previous word, that figures prominently in detective stories and is roughly synonymous with "clue." May also be used to guide animals by pulling.

It has a homograph, "lead", pronounced "lĕd" (rhymes with "bed"): a heavy grey metal. Because it's pronounced differently, it counts as a heteronym.

Its elusive past participle (or preterite) is "led," pronounced "lĕd" like the previous word and thus its heterograph.

If you're interested in the fine distinctions between the five dollar words I've been tossing around, I'm happy to report that Wikipedia has a marvelous colorful Venn diagram that makes it all abundantly clear.5

The final nail in the coffin of correct diction in this case is Microsoft Word, or any software that purports to do spelling (and perhaps grammar) checking. The software isn't clever enough to discern what's going on, but the user is serene in its perceived blessing.6

Use this word in a sentence? OK: Do not be led astray: use of lead leads may lead to cable failure. Copper is better.7

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Notes

  1. From a Trip Journal on Yahoo! Travel. I don't know how the story continues, you'll have to go look for yourself if you care.
  2. Why on earth was possessive its has no apostrophe nuked?
  3. Word frequency list from the Brown Corpus (1,015,945 words). "lead" appears between "wrong" and "myself."
  4. That was a joke, OK?
  5. Wikipedia article on "homonym".
  6. Thanks to Morwen for reminding me about this.
  7. With thanks to DonJaime. Less worthy precursors to this sentence were:
    • I have been led to believe by following your leads that the butler was killed with the lead piping by Apollyon; and
    • Take your horse by the lead and lead it to unleaded water; don't be led into temptation before you've followed every lead! by yours truly.
    If you would care to suggest an even better demo sentence, please /msg me with it!

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