Learning When To Use Learned Or Learnt

One of Mind Your Language's key rules is: when in doubt, check in a dictionary. However, that's not always a one-step strategy. When making those checks, you need to understand how the dictionary operates. The question of whether to use 'learned' or 'learnt' provides a good example.

I published an article on Lifehacker today entitled What I Learned From A Week Of Eating Nothing But IKEA. Reader KM (who regularly and helpfully points out potential Mind Your Language topics) suggested on Twitter that I had chosen the wrong form:

The dictionary itself isn't online in a full and free form, but KM also pointed to this blog post quoting from the dictionary in a discussion of this very issue.

Here's what the post from CyberText said: "Use your main dictionary authority for guidance (Macquarie Dictionary is our authority, and they only use 'learnt' as the past tense of the verb 'learn')." I could point out that the Macquarie Dictionary should be referred to as 'it' and not 'they', but that's a different battle.

More specifically, the site quotes two entries from the dictionary to support its claim:

learnt: verb a past tense and past participle of learn

learned: adjective 1. having much knowledge gained by study; scholarly

And then there's this extraordinary claim: "Macquarie Dictionary has NO definition for 'learned' as a verb, irregular or otherwise."

Sorry, but that's simply not true. Macquarie Dictionary has no separate entry or definition for 'learned', but that's because it follows a principle used by most English language dictionaries: it does not have distinct entries for verbs in English which form their past tense by adding '-ed' on the end, since this is the most common form.

Indeed, in the vast majority of cases it does not even list those variants in the entry for the main verb. Look at the entry for 'sort', for example, and you won't find 'sorted' under the verb form. Including every '-ed' verb form on its own would make the dictionary ludicrously long.

The Macquarie makes an exception to this rule when alternate forms exist, however, or when the spelling isn't simply a matter of adding '-ed'. And that's what happens under 'learn': both 'learned' and 'learnt' are listed.

At first I assumed that we shouldn't read anything special into 'learned' appearing first, since the ordering appears alphabetical. However, checking other similar pairs does sometimes show the '-t' version first (this happens with spilt/spilled, for instance). However, that's not a dismissal of the alternative, and there's no note for 'learned' or 'learnt' to indicate that one use is more common in Australia (or the US, or anywhere else).

The listing of 'learnt' appears separately (as well as in the main entry for 'learn') because it's an irregular form, but it is not the "only" past tense listed, as CyberText claims. Indeed, you can see that in the definition: it says "a past tense", not "the past tense".

None of that means you can't choose to use 'learnt' as your preferred form. This is one of those cases where there isn't a single "correct" answer. If (like KM) you feel that 'learnt' is the more appropriate form, use it consistently and know that the dictionary backs you. But it also backs me in preferring to use 'learned', and I'd rather use regular forms when I can. Accuracy matters, and it starts with knowing all the hidden tricks in the reference tools.

Big thanks to KM for raising this issue; I'm always keen for some dictionary education!

Lifehacker's Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice on improving your writing.


Comments

    Rightly or wrongly I tend to apply this rule...

    If it would sound just as correct to say (out loud) learn-ed (as opposed to learn'd) then it's learned. If not, learnt.

    I.e. you could say "my learn'd colleague", or "my learn-ed colleague". But you wouldn't say "he learn-ed the piano"

      How about:
      - "burnt at the stake" or "burned at the stake" ?
      - "spilt milk" or "spilled milk" ?

        Above specifically applied to Learned / Learnt, but I would tend to say burnt, but write burned. Also tend towards saying spilt, but writing spilled.

        I blame my mixed heritage.

    I remember my grade 6 teacher telling me "you didn't learnt anything, you learned" and that's just stuck with me. It's often confused me though because I see learnt more often than learned.

      Sounds like your grade six teacher had more issues grappling with the English language in general ;)

      try "you haven't learnt anything..." and it sounds OK... 'haven't' would tend to be the present tense, 'didn't' sounds like past tense... is that a key to the whole mystery...?

    Learned if you wanna sound 'murican.
    Learnt if you wanna sound normal.

    Same with all those other words. It's burnt toast not burned toast. No use crying over spilt milk.

    Learnt... Just saying... This isn't America...

      I'd argue strongly (and the Macquarie would agree) that it's not an Americanism. Your related counter-examples are all adjectives, not verbs, which is a somewhat separate issue. And there's a really obvious uber-Aussie counter-example there too: "A hard-earned thirst needs a big cold beer . . ."

        Well it's certainly not "Americanism"... Both methods are accepted all over the world, it just so happens that there is a strong tendency towards learned in America and learnt in other countries.
        I guess the easiest way is that neither is wrong per se, just to use whatever rolls off your tounge easier.

          I note that what you mention about strong tendency for learned is true for America. However, the tendency in other countries is not towards learnt as you imply. Indeed the ratio is still 3 to 1 in favour of learned in British publications. I'd imagine that learned is also used more than learnt in Australia, but to prove it would require a corpus.

          http://grammarist.com/spelling/learned-learnt/

      Macquarie has a strong prescriptive us vs them ("them" usually being Americans) line in language which I find hard to square with most modern linguistic endeavours. It's veered over into being a style manual with its prescriptions being essentially based on "this is what language users say [if they only consult Macquarie references]" to make it a closed system.

    learned: adjective 1. having much knowledge gained by study; scholarly

    This is pronounced with two syllables (eg. "She is a learn-ed woman" which means the woman has much knowledge gained by study; she is scholarly.)

    I'm not sure what else the entry says but the example that you've quoted (and quoted in my post above) is not the past tense of learn.

      I realise that I'm gravedigging. But I will learn you!

      The Macquarie Dictionary for learn is as follows: (www.macquariedictionary.com.au/features/word/search/?word=learned&search_word_type=Dictionary#results)
      "learn
      /lɜn/ (say lern)
      verb (learned /lɜnd/ (say lernd) or learnt, learning)"

      The Macquarie Dictionary shows no agreement. Thus, what we (should have) learned today is that the example quoted above is a correct past tense of learn, and there is also a more colloquial past tense form of learn that is spelled learnt.

      Indeed, by consulting the Australian Corpus of English (a million words from over 800 different Australian texts) and running a frequency list, I found that the word learned was used 50 times, while learnt was used 27 times.

      Now, as Macquarie Dictionary shows that 'learned' can be an adjective as well as a verb, I checked manually both learned and learnt. The word learnt was not used as an adjective, but learned was used as an adjective twice. Thus we find that the ratio of learned to learnt as a past tense verb is 48 to 27, significantly lower than the 3:1 of the British, but still almost 2:1.

      For example, in Wildlife Australia March 1986, Aussie Darryl Jones wrote:
      "A little more than a month ago Cecil, along with a small number of the
      older males of this location began the arduous task of constructing the
      massive compost heap they have learned to use as an incubator for their
      eggs."

      And for a second example, in Larrikin Spring 1986, the essay 'Whither Australia's culture? The bicentenary and beyond By Roddy McLean':
      "We out-Pommed the Poms and thought we had come of age. But we had simply learned their games and played by their rules."

      Finally, a third example from Battler's Block 1986 by Sandy Thorne
      "Norman had gone on to manage a cattle property, declaring that
      his brother had 'shit for brains'. 'Haven't you learnt your
      lesson yet?' he'd sneered."

      In conclusion, we find that Australians used learned more frequently than learnt in publications. The Macquarie Dictionary also indicates that learned is a correct past tense form of learn, and although it does not provide the judgement that learnt is a more colloquial form, I would insinuate that a casual comparison of the 48 vs 27 sentences does reveal a much cruder, more brutish type of text. To continue to use the learnt form would not be inappropriate, but the learned man would prefer learned in polite company.

    "Learn-ed" has a different meaning to "learned," so let's leave that out of the argument. I tend to stick with learnt except when saying things like "learned behaviour" or "learned helplessness."

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now