Learned and learnt

Learned or learnt?


 The words ‘learned’ and ‘learnt’ are both forms of the past simple tense and past participle of the verb ‘to learn’, meaning to acquire knowledge, but which form is correct? 

Although both spellings are acceptable, it is necessary to consider some English grammar in order understand why there are two spellings. The past tense of a regular verb is formed by adding ‘ed’ to the present tense; for example, the past tense of the regular verb ‘listen’ is ‘listened’. Irregular verbs do not form the past tense in this way, such as the irregular verb‘ to go’ which has a past tense ‘went’ and a past participle ‘gone’. In American and Canadian English, ‘learn’ is a regular verb, so its past tense is ‘learned’, but in British English, ‘learn’ is an irregular verb with a past tense ‘learnt’. This is why the usual practice in British English is to use ‘learnt’ and in American English to use ‘learned’. However, I say ‘usual practice’ because it is not unknown for ‘learned’ to be used in British English and ‘learnt’ to be used in American English.  

This sounds confusing, so which form should writers use? At the present time, it is still best to use ‘learnt’ in British English and ‘learned’ in American and Canadian English, although it is possible that this may change in the future if ‘learn’ ever becomes considered as a regular verb in British English. However, it is essential that just one spelling is used throughout in order to maintain consistency. 

The word ‘learned’ can also be used as an adjective, as in the sentence, ‘The professor is a very learned person.’ In this case, ‘learnt’ is not correct and ‘learned’ should always be used. Another example is that in a court of law, a barrister refers to another barrister as ‘my learned friend’. Furthermore, when ‘learned’ is used as an adjective, it is pronounced as ‘learn-ed’ (two syllables). Sometimes a grave accent is used in ‘learnèd’, but this is rare and can be regarded as an obsolete form. When ‘learned’ is used as an adjective, the spelling and pronunciation are the same in both British and American English.

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