Learnt vs learned?

Learnt (UK) and learned (US) are past tense forms of the irregular verb “learn.” The word learned is also an adjective that describes a well-educated person, but the spelling of “learnt” does not apply to the adjective form.

Your writing, at its best

Compose bold, clear, mistake-free writing with Grammarly's AI-powered writing assistant

What is the difference between learnt vs. learned ?

If you’re learning English for the first time, the easiest grammar lesson to learn is that if a word has two spellings, it’s likely because of American English vs. British English. Learning the difference between learnt and learned is no different, although it appears to be a topic of hot debate. 

The words learnt and learned are the past tense forms of the verb ‘to learn,’ which means ‘to gain or acquire knowledge.’ Both spellings are correct, but “learnt” is more common outside of the United States (and particularly in the United Kingdom). 

The only time “learnt” is undeniably wrong is when “learned” is an adjective that describes someone as educated or smart. So, unless you’re trying to be ironic, avoid using “learnt” for descriptions.

Learned vs. learnt = American English vs. British English

The main differences in spelling between learned and learnt involve ‘standardized’ forms of the English Language. Dictionaries in the United Kingdom declare “learnt” as the standard spelling, while American dictionaries prefer “learned.” 

Noah Webster, the co-founder of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, played a significant role in the standardization of American English in the early 19th century. The Word Counter covered similar spelling misnomers, including: 

Another confusing trait about learned vs. learnt is that “learn” is an irregular verb. An irregular verb is a word with different tense forms than you’d logically expect. For example, most verbs conjugate to past tense forms that end with -ed. Irregular verbs follow their own rules, though, and most English speakers have to memorize these tense forms early on. 

Irregular verbs with similar spelling differences to learned vs. learnt include: 

  • Burned and burnt 
  • Dreamed and dreamt
  • Dwell and dwelt
  • Kneeled and knelt
  • Leaped and leapt
  • Spelled and spelt 
  • Smelled and smelt
  • Spilled and spilt
  • Spoiled and spoilt

Note how one form ends with -ed while the other ends with -t? Depending on geography and local dialects, English speakers may choose to use one verb form over the other. English speakers in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, or Australia tend to use the -t form of words, while Americans trend toward the -ed form (but not always). 

There are instances in English when the -t endings always top the -ed endings. For instance, “sleeped” and “keeped” are incorrect versions of “slept” and “kept.” Additional irregular verbs with -t endings include: 

  • Build = built, not “builded.” 
  • Deal = delt, not “dealed
  • Leave = left, not “leaved.”
  • Meet = met, not “meeted.”
  • Send = sent, not “sended.”
  • Shoot = shot, not “shooted.”
  • Weep = wept, not “weeped.”

The adjective “learned” is never “learnt

It’s not uncommon for Americans to believe that “learnt” is informal or that it sounds 

uneducated. The perceived informality is likely due to the adjective form of “learned,” which we use to describe someone as informed or expertly in a skill, study, or experience. 

As an adjective, we can use the spelling of learned for the adverb learnedly and the noun learnedness, but we’d never use learnt for “learntly” or “learntness” (in the English Language, anyways). Therefore, it’s safe to say that we shouldn’t use “learnt” as an adjective. 

Non-American English grammar guides take the adjective and verb spellings into account when deciphering the correct use of learnt vs. learned. For example, The ABC Style Guide (an Australian media group) states that either spelling is okay as long there’s no confusion between “learned” as an adjective and verb. 

What does learned mean?

The word learned is an adjective and the past participle of the verb “learn,” which means: 

  1. To develop a skill or knowledge of a subject through studying, observation, mentorship, or life experience; or,
  2. To teach someone a skill or subject (archaic). 

Sentence examples with the verb learned include:

“Today, we learned about the solar system.”
“I learned how to speak French.”
“Have you learned your lesson yet?”
“He’s learned nothing.” 
“She’s going to learn you to mind your own business” (archaic). 

As an adjective, the word learned describes something as educated or acquired through learning. Similar terms include the adverb learnedly or the noun learnedness

Sentence examples with the adjective learned include:

“Stephen Hawkings was a learned man.”
I wouldn’t call the class enlightened, but it is a group of learned students.”
“Constant apologizing is a learned behavior and response.” 
“Some people develop learned helplessness as a coping mechanism.”

Synonyms

Verb: Absorb, assimilate, digest, discover, familiarize, grasp, hear, master, memorize, retain, understand. 

Adjective: Academic, bookish, educated, erudite, esoteric, intellectual, knowledgeable, lettered, literate, polished, scholarly, well-read. 

Antonyms

Verb: Disregard, forget, ignore, lose, miss, misunderstand, neglect, overlook.

Adjective: Benighted, dark, ignorant, illiterate, lowbrow, semiliterate, uncivilized, uneducated, unlearned, unscholarly.

What does learnt mean?

The word learnt is another past tense form of the verb learn, except it’s more common for British English. But unlike the word learned, British English doesn’t use “learnt” as an adjective to describe someone as educated. 

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, British English only uses the word learnt as the past simple and past participle of learn. More specifically, the British definition of learnt conveys the act of obtaining or discovering information.

Sentence examples with the verb learnt include: 

“I fear that I haven’t learnt much of anything.” 
“There were many lessons learnt along the way.”
“She learnt a lot about the planet Venus.”

Synonyms

Ascertain, determine, discern, gather, gain, grasp, hear, master, memorize, pick-up, read, receive, see, study, uncover, understand.

Antonyms

Ignore, lose, miss, misunderstand, neglect, overlook, pass, release. 

A brief history of learnt and learned

The words learnt and learned each come from the verb learn, which entered the English Language via Old English (circa 500 to 1100 CE). At the time, the Old English term leornian meant “to get knowledge” or “to study, read,” and “think about.” 

English speakers of the 13th century used the verb learned to mean “teach,” but modern English speakers hardly use the verb in this form. According to Lexico, this archaic use of learned fell out of favor around the 19th century. 

How to use learnt vs. learned in a sentence?

To use learnt and learned in a sentence correctly, it’s important to realize how both words are past tense of the verb “learn.” By itself, “learn” and “learns” occurs in the present tense, while the act of “learning” presides in past, present, and future continuous tenses. 

The words learned and learnt represent the past participle of learn, so we only use them to actions of the past. More specifically, we use learned and learnt for the simple past tense and the present, future, and past perfect tenses. 

<Simple past tense

The simple past tense describes any action that occurred before the present moment. 

“I learned how to use Grammarly.” 
“I learnt about the influence of American English.” 

Present perfect tense

The present perfect tense describes actions that occurred at an unknown or indefinite past time. 

“I’ve learned my lesson the hard way.” 
“She has learnt much through BBC News.”

Present perfect formula: have/has + learned/learnt.

Future perfect tense

The future perfect tense describes future actions that will end before another future point.

“You will have learned English grammar by then.” 
“By the time you reach middle school, you will have learnt basic grammar rules.”

Future perfect formula: will have + learned/learnt.

Past perfect tense

The past perfect tense (or pluperfect) describes completed actions that ended before another past event. 

“Thankfully, I had learned how to use irregular verbs by then.” 
“I was glad to hear that students had learnt to avoid common spelling errors.”

Past perfect formula: had + learned/learnt.

How to pronounce learned vs. learnt?

Another big difference between learnt and learned involves pronunciation and, believe me, it’s not as simple as you’d like it to be. Several online dictionaries feature different pronunciations of learnt and learned, and they appear to depend on user dialect, word form, and the word’s approximate definition. 

How to pronounce learned as an adjective?

The adjective learned always contains two syllables, but it’s pronunciation changes by region. Americans pronounce learned as “ler-ned” or “ler-nid” (lɜːrnɪd), while British speakers say “lur-nid” (lɜːnɪd). 

There appears to be one exception, however. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, Americans also pronounce the adjective form of learned with one syllable as “lurnd” (ˈlərnd, ˈlərnt). The single syllable seems confusing at first, but it makes sense when you realize that people use verb definition as an adjective. For example:

  • A learned man.” = learned (two syllables)
  • Learned behavior.” = learned (one syllable)

How to pronounce the verbs learned and learnt?

According to Lexico, English speakers tend to pronounce the verb learned with one syllable. Americans pronounce learned as “lurnd” (ləːnd), and British speakers pronounce learnt as “lurnt” (ləːnt). However, if an American said “learnt,” it would sound like “lernt.”

FAQs: Related to learned vs. learnt

Is learnt informal?

If you live in the United States or Canada, the word learnt might sound informal because it’s less common than learned. If you live in the United Kingdom, the word learnt is the formal past tense form of the verb learn.

Is learnt a valid scrabble word?

According to Merriam-Webster’s Scrabble Word Finder, learnt is a valid Scrabble word. In addition to learnt, you can play learn, learned, and learning with 83 playable words. 

Test Yourself!

Ready to take your grammar skills abroad? Test how well you understand learnt vs. learned with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. ______________ is the past tense of learn. 
    a. Learning
    b. Learnt
    c. Learned
    d. A and B
  2. For British English, “learnt” is the ______________ of learned.
    a. Irregular form
    b. Common form
    c. Future tense form 
    d. Continuous tense form
  3. What is the opposite of a “learned person”?
    a. A person who likes to read.
    b. Someone with a lot of knowledge. 
    c. A student in college.
    d. A person that refuses to learn. 
  4. Which of the following is not an irregular verb?
    a. Burned
    b. Dreamed
    c. Need
    d. Smelled
  5. Which of the following sentences uses “learned” or “learnt” incorrectly? 
    a. “I’m a learnt scholar.” 
    b. “He learned about Pokemon.” 
    c. “Harry learnt much at Hogwarts.” 
    d. “She’s a charming and learned diplomat.” 

Answers

  1. C
  2. B
  3. D
  4. C
  5. A

Photo sources:

  1. Photo by Victoria Heath
  2. Photo by Element5 Digital 

Sources

  1. Harper, Douglas. “Learn (v.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, Etymonline, 2020. 
  2. Learn.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  3. Learned, learnt.” The ABC Style Guide, ABC, 2020. 
  4. Learned.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.“Learned.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  5. Learn•ed.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary, AP Stylebook, 2020. 
  6. Learnt.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
  7. Learnt.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  8. Learnt or Learned?Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020. 
  9. To learn.” Reverso Conjugation, Reverso-Softissimo, 2020.