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:
@gusworldau Shouldn't it be 'learnt' in Aus English and not 'learned'? Macquarie Dictionary agrees with me.
— KM (@KiloOscarZulu) July 15, 2013
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.