Okay, time for a quick quiz. The subject is irregular verbs, and answers will be accepted only if they’re spelled correctly. Remember to keep your eyes on your own paper, please.

Ready? Here’s Part One:

1. What’s the past tense of the verb breed?
2. What’s the past tense of the verb feed?
3. What’s the past tense of the verb speed?
4. What’s the past tense of the verb bleed?

Simple, right? Let’s try Part Two, then:

1. What’s the past tense of the verb read?
2. What’s the past tense of the verb lead?
3. What’s the past tense of the verb plead?
4. What’s the past tense of the verb tread?
5. What’s the past tense of the verb spread?

And . . . pencils down. How’d you do? Did you have any trouble? (You can check your answers at the bottom of the post.)

My point, I’m sure, is obvious: that’s there’s not much you can rely on when it comes to spelling and strong verbs. Why all the inconsistencies? Well, it has to do with the fact that these words are very old and that the English language has changed a good bit over the centuries, both in spelling and pronunciation. But I’m not an expert in historical linguistics, so let’s leave it at that.

However, even as a pretty jaded seen-it-all editor, I’m continually flabbergasted by the number of times I come across a sentence like this one:

We’re creatively lead and creatively driven.

Sorry, unnamed colleague. That should be led, not lead.

The source of the confusion? Maybe folks assume that it’s spelled the same way as the element lead (as in lead pipe or pencil lead — which of course is not actually lead, but never mind). Or maybe they’re unconsciously using the verb read as an analogue — which, as we saw in the quiz above, is a bad idea.

The upshot? Don’t be misled by your eye or your ear. This is one of those spellings that you may just have to memorize.

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Answers to Part One: 1. bred. 2. fed. 3. sped. 4. bled. Answers to Part Two: 1. read. 2. led. 3. pleaded or pled. 4. trod. 5. spread.

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