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Is it correct to use 'winning' or 'leading' when referring to the current state of a match/game?

e.g. for a game between Patriots and Broncos in progress, if Patriots have scored higher points than Broncos, would it be correct to say that "Patriots are winning" or that "Patriots are leading"?

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  • Either one works. Might be different for sports like golf where getting more points is a bad thing? Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 0:42
  • I want to say "The two can often be used synonymously, but it might vary depending on which game you play." but I can't think of a single example of a competitive game or sport where they can't be used interchangeably.
    – IQAndreas
    Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 1:46
  • On the other hand, when used in connection with the run-up to an election, "leading in the polls" is (arguably) meaningful, since the poll measures current popularity; but "winning in the polls" is nonsensical: You win the election at the ballot box, not in the opinion polls.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 2:07
  • Thank you everyone for your response. My friend and I have been arguing about the correct usage and these responses provide reasonable arguments. Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 21:49
  • You would say your favorite team is "winning", but you would likely say that the other team is only "leading".
    – Spencer
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 11:57

6 Answers 6

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I take winning to express an expectation in the speaker that the current scores would lead them to win.

I take leading to mean up in score but not necessarily in a way that implies winning.

To give a somewhat clear (though perhaps not if you don't understand American football scoring example), If one team (Team A) has 7 points and the other team (Team B) had zero points but has just scored a touchdown, then the score would 7-6, then Team A would be leading but not winning -- as the extra point is scored with such high frequency, that most observers would not imagine Team A as having any real advantage even though they are leading on the scoreboard.

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  • If I might give an alternative example, a chess player who has sacrificed his queen to get an overwhelmingly advantageous position is not 'leading' (since he has fewer pieces) but is 'winning'. Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 3:13
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In any game with a fixed time duration, leading in the earliest part of the game can say little about whether a competitor is winning.

This can also be illustrated when the leader is the only one that has had an opportunity to score, or the leading team is about to turn over its scoring privilege and thereby give the opponent a chance to overturn the score. This can happen in baseball, where the teams may be close in score and the leading team goes to the outfield in the top of the ninth inning.

Another example occurs in a relay race, where the anchor runner (the last runner) on a team is known to be especially good and likely to overturn race.

In an election, ballot counting may show a bias toward one candidate in the early counts, showing that candidate is leading. But knowing something about the uncounted precincts can lead a knowledgable poll watcher to know that leading is not necessarily winning.

In cases like these, leading does not necessarily equate to winning.

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Leading, to me, is what's happening at a certain time in the game when people are still uncertain of who is going to win. Winning is more towards the end of the game, or at least to a point when people are certain that a particular party/team is going to win. That's the way I think about it.

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In the context you mention the correct word would be leading.

There is the concept of "winning". It's a nominalization of the verb "to win". It implies the outcome of a match.

There is the verb "winning". It denotes the verb "to win", performed intransitively in the moment. Thus, for the patriots to be winning, one must:

  1. Be certain of the outcome
  2. Be describing the Patriots in the act of winning, in the current moment

The word leading, however, implies a temporary action, applied transitively. Thus the patriots cab be leading the Packers 7-0.

So, if you were narrating an NFL Films documentary about the Super Bowl 31, you could use the word "winning". But if you were a sports caster narrating the live game you would have to use the verb "leading".

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Leading applies during the game and winning comes only toward the end, unless one is guessing the outcome of the match.

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Until the match/game is complete, the winning team is unknown. Therefore each team is merely participating until the match/game is complete. In a major league baseball game, the first team to bat could score a run in the first inning and be leading until the final at bat by by the other team, when the other team scores two runs to win the game. In this case, the first team was never winning the game. There were leading the game until the final at bat. They were in the process of losing the game. The other team was in the process of winning the game, even before the outcome was known. There's no way to know if one is winning or losing until the end of the game. Leading or trailing is the correct way to reference the teams prior to the end of the game.

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  • Pragmatics plays a part, not just logic. 'Winning' is often used in the sense of 'doing better in the contest' no matter what the final outcome. Thus 'Exodus 17:11, New International Version: 'As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning.' [BibleHub] Many other hits for "were winning but" -Moses. Commented May 9 at 22:24

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