Learned vs. learnt

Learned is the more common past tense and past participle of the verb learn. Learnt is a variant especially common outside North America. In British writing, for instance, it appears about once for every three instances of learned. In the U.S. and Canada, meanwhile, learnt appears only once for approximately every 500 instances of learned, and it’s generally considered colloquial.

Writers throughout the English-speaking world use learned as the adjective meaning possessing broad, profound knowledge. Incidentally, this sense of learned is pronounced with two syllables: LUR-ned. As a verb and in normal past-participial use, learned is one syllable.

Examples

Instances of learnt, as seen below, are especially easy to find in British publications: 

What’s more, I learnt that it is possible for scientists to influence these enquiries. [Guardian]

But, just like Peter Siddle, he has learnt tricks from other sports. [Telegraph]

As a result of both, I have learnt a number of lessons (some of them the hard way). [Financial Times]

The same publications use learned much of the time, however.

But learned is the more common form, and it is used both in the past tense and as the past participle, as shown below:

He learned to read at a little schoolhouse where his parents had gone as well. [NY Times]

Although many new mothers think breastfeeding will be natural, it is a learned skill, she said. [News.com.au]

During his stay, he has learned that some things remain the same as on earth. [CBC.ca]

Ngram

This Ngram visually renders the use of learned and learnt in a large number of U.S. books and periodicals published from 1800 to 2019.

learned vs learnt american english

And this one shows the words’ use in British books and periodicals from the same period:

learned vs learnt british english

Keep in mind, though, that both these Ngrams are skewed, even if only a little, by the adjectival learned.

115 thoughts on “Learned vs. learnt”

  1. Great post! Thanks for the clarification. I have the habit of wanting to correct the person who uses “learnt.” I remember my 1st grade English teacher drilling into our heads “learnt is poor English!”  By the way, where did you get the data for those charts?

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    • I realize it’s been 4 years since your post, but I was told the same thing in grammar school.
      I was just reading an exposé and it had “Learnt” in the title. I thought, “How was this even published!? How embarrassing!” Yet, now, I’m the one rather embarrassed.
      I thought I had quite a grasp on the King’s English…apparently one does learn new things every single day. I learnt a new one today, myself!
      Thank you for this amazing site.

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      • Generally speaking, New Zealand language follows British in terms of spelling of the words (although not pronunciation)

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          • Then you’re wrong, as all the sources I’ve read, including this one, accept both forms. Use “learned” if you like, as I use “learnt” — but it would be rude, and wrong-headed for me to correct your usage just as it would be rude and wrong-headed for you to correct mine.

    • Yep, that’s us Ashlee. Was just ‘corrected’ (on FB) by some upstart in the US that ‘learnt’ was not a word. I gave him what-o!!! :) Glad it actually is in your neck-o’-the-woods after-all, Liz. :)

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    • We also say knelt instead of kneeled, burnt instead of burned, dreamt instead of dreamed, spoilt instead of spoiled and spelt instead of spelled, leapt, slept, spilt and so on. We don’t and should never use American variants of the English language in NZ

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      • Slept doesn’t really apply, since sleeped actually isn’t a word here in North America either, the same way keeped is not, and kept is.

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      • Actually, being from Brooklyn NY, we tend to use and accept many of the t endings listed here as well: burnt, slept, leapt, spilt are accepted in formal writing and common usage. The only one that we are told is wrong is learnt! Also from many of my professors in my Ivy League University, they used learned (one syllable) in place of learn-ed! English all over is always changing, I love changing up my style from time to time. Will start working on making learnt cool in the US now. Then in 30 years will do a switcheroo to drive everyone nutty.

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      • The people in the U. S. are slowing losing any sense of what grammar even is! Despite being born & raised here, I find it extremely embarrassing to read other posts, watch TV, podcasts, etc. by Americans utilizing “words”, slang, or misspelling every other word. I know some people say it is “texting syndrome” and whatnot, but to me? It’s utter laziness & an unwillingness to learn. Teachers & schools, as well, are to blame. My 4th son just graduated this year. Not one of my boys ever had any type of grammar lessons once they are out of middle school. High School English consisted of reading a book followed by a project. Luckily, I’m a stickler for proper grammar and spelling. I’m not perfect, but I want to hold normal conversations with them and they have the ability to not look ridiculous when they write.
        I suppose I’m asking for people not to judge all Americans due to the lack of some refusing to speak properly.
        Thanks :)

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    • “Learned is the more common past tense and past participle of the verb learn. Learnt is a variant especially common outside North America.”

      Namely learned is the more common form EXCEPT everywhere else in the English-speaking world. Hah, Americans.

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      • It also goes on to say learnt is used once out of every three instances of learned. Learned is still more commonly used worldwide. They’re just saying learnt is more commonly used outside of North America. Reading comprehension ftw.

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        • Might be that you are reading mostly North American sources.

          You send a bunch of illiterate religious nuts to the colonies, and lo and behold: they can’t spell. But they go ahead and create new dictionaries and grammars. Suddenly “gotten” is a word (I guess because of “forgotten”?) and then they go online and correct English English speakers. Oh dear.

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  2. An interesting point to note is that both the past tense forms “learnt” and “learned” are pronounced similarly (with the ending ‘t’ sound).

    Of course, their pronunciations would differ in American and British English. But, a British English speaker would pronounce them both similarly, and an American English speaker would also pronounce them similarly, though the way these two speakers would pronounce the words would differ.

    [Also, obviously I am not referring here to the other, adjectival, usage of learned (lur-ned). That one does end with the ‘d’ sound.]

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    • There is no such thing as ‘British English’. Britain is made up of several countries, all with strong accents of their own – often more diverse between each other than with ‘American’.

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      • Accent has nothing to do with it. It is what is taught in schools as proper English. In the US we us a z in many places that an s is used in the UK. Calling it “British” English is simply differentiating the more common rules between the two countries, not the accents. If accent was the only rule then we would be speaking thousands of English forms in the US alone. However, it is rules dealing with the proper use of words, phrases, etc. We do not use “learnt” in the US nor do we spell it, organisation. If you can tell me that in Scotland they are using z’s instead of an s then we won’t group you in calling it British English. We’ll say you speak American English. However, for the general types without getting picky for the slang and accent preferences to a region, a common type of English is spoken in the UK that is referred to as British English. A common type is spoken in the US that is referred to as American English. All other English speaking countries will typically fall under one of these sets. We don’t say, you speak Australian English, or New Zealand or even South African English. For speaking English in the world there are two major distinctions, American English and British English.

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        • You’re right. I am Argentinian and I’m at college studying in the Licensed Translator course and, of course, I must know about phonetics. There’s a book I’ve read which actually makes that distinction that you mentioned between those two common “Englishes”, and they call BBC English as RP (Received Pronunciation). However, it also describes the Estuary English which shares characteristis with other accents.
          There’s an interesting video called “World Englishes” by David Crystal. Some of you might be interested in it.

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        • Nope, sorry we do have such a thing as New Zealand English. We even have the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary which claims to be the ultimate guide to New Zealand English. It is not just spellings that are different, but the language is different to English. For example the words “crib” and “bach”, meaning beach cottage, is part of NZ English and not just a colloquialism like the word “nope.” American English also differs in content as well as spelling and grammar. For example they would say elevator as opposed to lift. In the NZ Oxford Dictionary I can find no reference to “British” English or “Proper” English. It is simply “English.”

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    • I’m not sure I agree. I live in Australia, where ‘learnt’ is commonplace and ‘learned’ is used not infrequently, and I can hear clear difference in pronunciation. Moreover, I suspect the two variants are used to render a (albeit small) difference in meaning: ‘learnt’ has more an abrupt feel to it—suggesting something immediate, whilst ‘learned’ seems to me to imply something longer term. It could just be me, and any difference is subtle in any case, but I suspect it’s there.

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    • Eks – I hate to disagree, but American English does not pronounce “learned” and “learnt” the same. We pronounce them the way they are spelled. Learned with a “d” ending sound and Learnt with a “t” ending sound. The difference in the two are really quite noticeable. If you are hearing the “t” ending sound it is because the speaker is saying learnt and not learned. I live in and grew up in the southern U.S.. Even with our Southern dialect butchering some words you can tell the difference. We were always taught to use learned and thought learnt was improper speech or slang. But, we could always tell the difference between the two.

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    • Learnt /lɜːnt/ vs. learned /lɜːnd/ (v); /ˈlɜːnɪd/ (adj.)
      As you can see they are not pronounced in the same way. The irregular form ends in /t/ (voiceless, alveolar, plosive consonant), on the other hand, the regular form ends in /d/ (voiced, alveolar, plosive).

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    • English is a language that evolves quite rapidly. This means that its grammar rules and its vocabulary evolve from how native speakers are speaking. French has l’Académie française, and so it evolves much less rapidly. The French are purists. If I were to take a stab at it, I would say that in the US, “learnt” became “learned” in an attempt to simplify the language and to remove exceptions. Canada also follows the British English rules. Another one of those rules is the use of the “z”. In the US, you would write organize, criticize, etc. whereas in Canada, as per British English, we would write organise, criticise, etc. Also, in the US you would write color, odor, etc., whereas in Canada we would write colour, odour. In this case, I do not believe that the evolution stems from a mispronunciation, although many words have evolved and evolve today due to chronic mispronunciations.

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      • Interesting. When I was in Canada I never saw the -ise suffix used in those instances you mention. My understanding is that Canadian writers prefer the -ize variant—which is perfectly acceptable in British English too, by the way.

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      • You missed with your stab. In the US, learnt did not become learned. It all depends on what part of the country you went to school. In the southern U.S., where I live and grew up, we were taught to use learned. Learnt was thought to be improper speech or known a slang.

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      • Canadian, generally speaking, actually uses ize instead of ise (statistically from canadian literature post 1960 and whatever you would call news articles) from. However do keep our Us in the words that you mentioned. Where I am from ‘learnt’ was never a thing. past tense for verbs was ed. Except maybe for dreamt, but then again there was normally arguments over that one.

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      • I am a Brit who has lived in Canada for 6 years, and in my experience, Canadians use a mixture between British and American spellings. They say “learned”; I have never heard a single Canadian say “learnt”, in fact I have been ‘corrected’ by Canadians for using this spelling. They also use “-ize”, not “-ise”. But I would agree that “-our” is used instead of “-or”, e.g., “colour”, “odour”.

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      • No, it’s not. I’m born and bred Kiwi, however, “learnt” is wrong to me. As an author, (and I may look way too much into this) but “learnt” is colloquial language, whereas “learned” is deemed correct.

        I’ve had this debate with the writers guild and all my English teachers and classes since year 10, that’s four years, I’ve had this debate.

        I use “spelled” not “spelt” (“spelt” is even underlined as incorrect while typing this. As is “learnt”. However, and regrettably so, I fluctuate between “burnt” and “burned”. I usually use “burned” because, the “t’s” on the end, just doesn’t look right.

        My one main “T” that I do use, is “dreamt” – however, only in pronunciation, never in spelling.
        Steve, you ARE right. “Learnt” is just a mispronunciation of “learned”.

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          • I would say yes built is correct, but then never in my life have I heard or seen the word builded (until I just now wrote it)

          • In America we “Burned” the toast. Burned is the older form. Burnt came about during a period in the 16th through 18th centuries in which there was a trend toward replacing -ed endings with -t in words where -ed was no longer pronounced as a separate syllable. Later, British writers continued to favor the newer -t forms for a handful of verbs, while North Americans went back to the more traditional -ed forms.

        • you should put into consideration the format of english your computer settings favors, else you may think learnt or spelt is wrong just because your computer underlines the word, what about favor and favour . . . ?

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  3. When I went to elementary school in the ’70s in Rhode Island, we were taught to use learnt, burnt, spelt, etc. and consequently, I still do. I relocated to California in 1983 and I distinctly remember someone laughing when I used these words, so I suspect it might be regional, perhaps New England English was closer to British English? We also pronounced the word “aunt” the British way, where in CA, they said “ant”.

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    • I grew up in CA, but learned to say learnt, burnt, etc. from my mother (though I usually write in the -ed form…?). My mother is from Massachusetts. Her father was from Newfoundland and her grandmother, who lived with my mother, was from Ireland. I’m not sure what her influences were, but it may have been a New England thing.

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    • I’m from New England and this is far from true. It is not regional. If anything it would be time based and instructor based. All the people who used to teach the neanderthal version of these words (aka UK English) since died. Good riddance. Replacing ed with t makes you sound uneducated.

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      • Does it make you sound uneducated? I learned the english in few years, studying. What I learnt is the contrary, actually. I find illiterate who turns the -t into -ed. Basically, everyone who doesn’t use the UK english.
        I ask because this is how I’ve learnt it, and this is how I will always use the english.

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  4. Does this extend to other words whose past tense can either end in “-ed” or “-t”? Specifically, I am thinking of “dreamed/dreamt”, where the pronunciation is affected more than in “learned/learnt”. The former would be pronounced with a long “e” sound and the latter with a short “e”.

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    • Yes, you are correct. Some areas of the world pronounce “dreamed” as “dreamt”. I believe this sort of thing is more common in British countries such as New Zealand, Australia, etc, where it is not just commonplace to pronounce as “dreamt”, but is taught to be incorrect to pronounce it any other way

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  5. My elementary school taught Learn (present tense), Learned (past tense), Learnt (past continuous tense). You always say “have learnt” whereas “have learned” is considered wrong.

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    • Well that is being petty!
      As learnt, spelt, spilt, burnt, dreamt, etc are all acceptable variants and are also, particularly in Oz, the preferable variants!
      Just look at a dictionary, such as the Macquarie (used in Oz).

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    • lol. you’d have to fire me for not being an illiterate. I’d never accept to use learned over learnt. I would just never ever do so.

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      • If you have to send a report to Jim, you should use his standard. He is your superior. You won’t be losing your job because of literacy, you’ll lose your job for not following the directions of your boss.

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        • Never bow to the authority. YOU are the authority. The boss must show you respect, it doesn’t matter if it’s the boss: if he’s wrong you must tell him, respectfully, but you’ve to tell him. Never bow, never be dominated, don’t let anyone rule you. Your life has value!

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  6. The text-to-speech engineer in me would suggest we use “learned” for the two-syllable “educated person” and move to “learnt” instead of “learned” for the past tense of learn. But I know that’s a pipe dream.

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  7. This nonsense about colloquial forms! It is not colloquial at all to my English ears using “learned” often sounds misplaced. I tend to use both forms depending on how it sounds in the context of the sentence, neither is grammatically wrong and should not be deemed so. We can all relax.

    It looks to me, though I am guessing, that “learnt” and “learned” stem from the partially germanic roots of the English language where verbs have 2 different endings depending on whether they are used in the simple past tense or the perfect past; That is “I learnt, I have learned” , (auf Deutsch Ich lernte, ich habe gelernt) Now English is not German and d’s are almost t’s sound etc. i don’t know I’m absolutely certain a linguisitics expert will know for sure.

    I do tend to use the different forms with an almost unknowing relationship to the time register of the event I am talking about and often when writing find myself changing it from one to the other depending on some unseen grammatical DNA. Sadly I have knwo clue if there is any real rule or difference anymore.

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    • I was taught that ‘learned’ was used when one ‘has learned’ something; and ‘learnt’ was used when the ‘has/have’ couldn’t be used in the sentence. For example: “Steve learned about philosophy today.” Because you can place ‘has’ between ‘Steve’ and ‘learned’ then you use the ‘-ed’ ending. But if you can’t place a ‘has/have’ there, then you use ‘learnt’.
      Does anyone remember this grammar rule at all?

      [Mind you, my English teacher was the world’s worst speller, so who knows if the grammar rules were correct]

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  8. So what have we learned/learnt from all this? I mean, ‘we’ as non-native English speaking foreigners… If you native speakers are already so confused, what about us? I just wanted to find out the correct spelling of ‘the word’ and came across this site. So there seem to be some clues about spelling (and very interesting indeed!), but I learned that it’s okay to use ‘learned’ all the time. Makes things easier after all ;-)

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  9. Why can’t we just settle on one word and not have confusion about which one is proper. Let’s just combine the two and start saying “learnted”.

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  10. I’m here because I typed in learnt and it comes up as incorrect spelling. But so does neighbour, colour and favour. So I am sticking with learnt. So there. :)

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  11. If “Learnt” is more common in Britain, doesn’t that make “Learned” the colloquial form? But really, the people claiming that one form is correct and the other arbitrarily wrong are just being arrogant. It’s ENGLISH, for gods sake. There’s so many instances of highly nuanced usages or multiple words with the same meaning in this language that it’s ridiculous to declare one right and one wrong, much as we may hate the ambiguity.

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  12. English is used in England, Australian is used in Australian, US citizens use their own corrupted version of the English language.”Learned and learnt” in England & Australia is more commonly used as, “He is a very learned man, who learnt well his lessons in school”. In this case “learned” has two distinct syllables, ler-ned. The reason a correction comes up for various words is more commonly because spell check is set to “US English”. It doesn’t mean a mistake has been made, it means that in the US they were and still are, too lazy to learn how to speak Correct English, instead opting for the easy way and changed the way of spelling to accommodate their laziness.

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    • First off, I am American. Learnt has always made people look ignorant to me, as if they grew up in some ghetto somewhere that I’ve never visited. I’m glad you were able to clear that up for me. Thanks!

      PS
      Think of all the things America contributed to the world. How can you call us lazy?

      In my opinion we weren’t lazy when this happened to the word “learnt”. We were building a great nation based on what we wanted in what once was the home of the free because of the brave.

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      • The only reason you think the users of ‘learnt’ are ignorant is because of your own ignorance.
        Learned IS becoming more acceptable but only because of US influence. For people who speak REAL English, ‘learned is used more in the line of, “He is a learned person” (Poetical), or, “it is a learned journal. (adjective). Or as a courteous remark of one with a good education, (unlike you), “My learned friend.”
        “Think of all the things America contributed”
        Most of the important ‘US inventions’ came from people who migrated to the country, think Tesla. Many of the home grown inventors actually either stole or merely improved inventions from others, think Thomas Edison.

        So, you think you “built a great nation” just by screwing up a language?
        Your people ‘built a great nation’ by slaughtering great nations that already lived there. Something to very proud of.
        The definitions I used for learnt, came from the Oxford dictionary which the US spellcheck system tells us that it is wrong!

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        • Well, I guess you failed to grasp my point when I wrote the reply thanking you for clearing that up for me. It was a genuine compliment. If you feel you must go on insulting people because you have self worth issues, have fun with that. You must be a very popular guy with your one friend (the dog you beat).

          As per my mention of America, you didn’t even notice that I wrote in past tense. This shows I am humble in regard to our involvement in wars this last few decades. It also points to a much earlier time regarding the use of learned instead of learnt.

          You could benefit from reading more history books instead of anal retentive dictionaries. History is written by the victors, not by those who were conquered. This is not the American way, it is the way of men in power over governments throughout time.

          All American’s came from somewhere else accept native American Indians. So your point about stolen inventions is moot.

          Ungrateful people like you probably wouldn’t exist without our intervention in WWII. I still don’t see any other nations putting men on the moon. Or did we steal that as well?

          I’m glad I learned that I was correct in my original assumption about people who use the word learnt. Namely you :)

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        • I have virtually agreed with every post from everyone from Britain, Australia, New Zealand…But your post is very cruel & shallow. You seem like a mean old man who holds people in contempt for not speaking “your” English. Well, I’ve heard plenty of slang & slews of improper English whilst in England, my friend.
          Please take note, sir, that the citizens of the U.S. are not all from Britain. Millions of people brought their languages & customs here and, in turn, new words were formed. I am Finnish, Irish, & Dutch. I grew up in a community that only spoke Finnish, so I used Finnglish often.
          Now, however, I am a big believer in proper grammatical skills, but your arrogance disgusts me.

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  13. When you say British English, do you mean Britain which contains England? You know, England where English is from? Stop trying to Americanize everything. So arrogant.

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    • British English as opposed to American or Australian English. What’s your beef? We’re discussing common words here, not the origin of languages.

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  14. Learned is the older form. Learnt came about during a period in the 16th through 18th centuries in which there was a trend toward replacing -ed endings with -t in words where -ed was no longer pronounced as a separate syllable. Later, British writers continued to favor the newer -t forms for a handful of verbs, while North Americans went back to the more traditional -ed forms.

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  15. While, as an American English speaker, I more comfortable with the use of “learned” (pr. lurnd), I can see a clear advantage to adopting “learnt”: distinguishing between that as the past tense of “learn”, and the adjective “learned” (pr. LURN-ed), meaning “educated”.

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    • That’s because this is exactly how it’s supposed to be. I don’t understand why North American English adopted this usage of “learned”. But you guys are still in time to correct your foul ways. We love you guys, don’t fail us on this one.

      Love,
      England

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  16. Learnt sounds like the British form of ebonics. It’s like listening to a person who speaks English as a second language. Very ghetto.

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  17. I suppose when it comes to Law writing in particular, a glossary of definitions should be included, so we aren’t endlessly trying to figure out what the writers of law were trying to say . I understand the spoken word can be forgiven to an extent, but not written ..That said, if we don’t come to some standardization of all words and definition without compromise … we are doomed… IMO its just lazy grammar habit…

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  18. Sorry to be pedantic; UK = Northern Ireland, Isle of Man, Scotland, England and Wales. Britain = Scotland, England and Wales only.

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      • Sorry, that is incorrect.
        The Isle of Man is a self governed crown dependency. It is not part of Cumbria, England, Great Britain or the UK.

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  19. Whales live in the sea and don’t speak any kind of English.
    Some people live in Wales, some of them speak Welsh and work hard to keep that ancient language alive.

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  20. I live near Washington DC. I’m learning French and find having both written and conversational forms strange. However, I’m guilty of speaking “drempt” but write the word as “dreamed”. Maybe English has a conversational form and these are the subtleties.

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  21. Great post. I remember being told by my school teachers that “learned” is just flat out wrong. All I learned is that school teachers are the worst of the grammar nazis – they’re not even right half the time yet they insist you do it their way!

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  22. ‘Huuurrr durrr hur. ‘Shred’ becomes ‘shredded’ so ‘learn’ will become ‘learned’. Hurr dur hur’.
    I hate the word ‘learned’ with a passion. It just sounds so illiterate. ‘Burned’, ‘leaped’ and ‘earned’ are annoying too, but they’re not as frequent.

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