Learned vs. Learnt

There are many perks to speaking a language that is the lingua franca of our time, but one of the downsides is that you’ll always have doubts about whether you’re using it right. The English language is like that—there are almost as many variants of it as there are countries that use it as their official language. And one would think that the people in the country from which the language originated would be safe from questioning their knowledge of their own language. But the original gets influenced by the offshoot, and a great example of that is the past tense of the verb learn—is it learnt? Or is it learned?

When to Use Learned, and When to Use Learnt

Learnt and learned are both used as past participle and past tense of the verb to learn. The difference between the two is that learned is the generally accepted way of spelling it in the United States and Canada, while the rest of the English-speaking world seems to prefer learnt:

“Ackerman has learned from user feedback that many of his listeners fall asleep during the twenty-minute introduction, and I’m usually one of them.” —The New Yorker

“CBC News has also learned a number of Conservative MPs will be called to testify by the Crown.” —CBC

“But, sometimes, these ‘agents’ learn to override this, they say, giving an example of a 2013 AI taught to play Tetris that learnt to pause a game forever to avoid losing.” —BBC

“The lesson I’ve learnt more than anything from what happened at Wentworth is the need to stay patient; and that will be my mantra going to Oakmont.” —The Irish Times

“The ABC has been investigating imports of asbestos-tainted building products and has learnt Australian Border Force holds hundreds of documents related to concerns.” —ABC

Whether you’re saying you learned something or learnt something, you’re speaking about the same thing—the process of finding out, acquiring, or retaining knowledge or information. The only difference is that the way you spell it says something about where you’re from. Or at least it would, if only it weren’t for the fact that the American English tendency toward making irregular verbs into regular ones has started influencing British English, which is why the -ed variant is becoming increasingly used around the world:

“After the explosive parliamentary hearings and a dump of new documents shedding further light on correspondence between the main players, this is what we have learned this week about the BHS scandal before Green’s highly anticipated appearance.” —The Guardian

“So what were the things we learned from this encounter? Here’s five to be going on with….” —Wales Online

“Although he did not always take their advice, he learned from their military professionalism and strived to create a coherent and effective high command.”—Irish Examiner

“Then she learned to do a budget with the help of ASIC’s Moneysmart website.” —The Sydney Morning Herald

The Exception

No matter where you live, there’s one occasion when learned is the only correct form to use—it’s when you’re writing the adjective learned. In that case, you can’t use learnt and you have to pronounce the word as two syllables: LER-ned. We use this adjective when we want to say that someone has a lot of knowledge or education:

“The girl with the very ordinary education became, in the words of her daughter, Sue, a ‘very learned’ woman.” —The Sydney Morning Herald

“You’re welcome,
Most learned reverend sir, into our kingdom:
Use us and it.”
—William Shakespeare, Henry VIII