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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.

—————

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.

Don’t pretend it hasn’t happened to you. You run across a word in an article online, and you realize with a start that you’ve been spelling it wrong for years. Or you hear a colleague use a phrase in a meeting, and you wonder why she pronounces it differently than you do — and which one of you is right. Or you find yourself stumbling over a word in conversation because you’re suddenly conscious of the fact that you’ve never actually pronounced it out loud. Sound familiar? It certainly does to me.

In cultures like ours, where the language of the printed page often bears little resemblance to the stuff we actually say, such confusion is inevitable from time to time. (This isn’t to say that spoken English is inferior to standard written English; the two lexicons just tend to vary widely.)

A case in point: A few months ago, at the office, I came upon the phrase by in large, and suffered a moment of self-doubt. A quick search of my electronic dictionary confirmed that, yes, the correct term is by and large. And I’ll admit it: I felt pretty self-satisfied for a minute.

But, honestly, my smugness was misplaced. For someone who’s never encountered the term in print, the mix-up is understandable: unless you’re speaking very carefully, the two versions of the phrase sound identical. And most of us who use the idiom have no clue to its literal meaning — which doesn’t help us in getting it right. (If you’re curious, the phrase traces back to the lingo of 17th-century sailors. Language maven Michael Quinion at World Wide Words offers a thorough explanation.)

By the way, there’s a special name for mistakes like this one, which are based on a pair of words or phrases that sound similar. They’re called eggcorns. And they’re more prevalent than you might think.

What about you? What “ear misses” have you discovered or encountered? Drop a line in the comments section. You can even pretend the mistake is someone else’s.

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