Many aspects of the English language can create challenges, such as its many distinct intricacies and indistinguishable differences. Regardless, learning the differences and uses of the wide array of words and phrases is important and rewarding. Keep reading to learn about the similarities, differences, and correct uses of the words learnt and learned.
In reality, both learnt and learned are correct past participle and past tense versions of the word learn. In the English language, they are pretty much interchangeable. However, there is one small difference in usage geographically. In general, more people use learned in the United States and Canada, while in the United Kingdom, learnt is the more popular version.
With these distinct similarities and usage differences, you should use whatever sounds best. However, when using these words, make sure to stick to one spelling to have consistency in writing.
Regular Vs. Irregular Past Tense Forms
When discussing these two variants of the past tense of learn, it is also worth mentioning that one form is regular and the other irregular. The American form learned classifies learn as a regular verb. As taught in school, we create the past tense of a verb by adding –ed, which would result in the word learn-ed in this case.
By contrast, the UK use of learnt means that this past tense verb is irregular.
Learned/Learnt Is Not the Only Example
It is worth noting that the past tense of learn is far from the only example where British and American English speakers disagree on the preferred spelling.
Other words include the following:
In each of these cases, the –ed variant is the accepted spelling in the United States, while the –t variant is preferred in the UK.
That said, the variations are mutually understandable by the rest of the English-speaking world. So, writing the –t variation in the United States will be understood, as will using the –ed version in the UK.
Interestingly, even American English forms some past tenses and past participles with –t instead of –ed. Examples include feel/felt and sleep/slept.
Beyond British English and American English
As mentioned, learned is the preferred past tense form in American English, and learnt is the preferred form in British English. Learned is also used in Canada and Australia. However, it is worth noting that Australians occasionally use the irregular verb form learnt as well, with some Australian style guides suggesting the use of learnt. Still, the official stance is the version spelled with the -ed ending.
Example Sentences for Each Version
In the following sentences, you could use either form of the verb’s past tense without altering its meaning whatsoever. Usage all depends on where you are. Here are some examples of how they are used in sentences.
The following sentences use learned/learnt as a past tense verb.
I learned/learnt how to form the past tense of verbs in school.
Mary has not learned/learnt how to dance yet.
The following examples use learned/learnt as a past participle.
She has learned/learnt many things from her professor.
I knew how to ride a bike because I had learned/learnt as a child.
Exceptions to Using Learned
You may find sentences in which learned is used as an adjective and not a verb. Learned can act as an adjective to describe someone knowledgeable and smart. In these situations, learned and learnt are not interchangeable, with distinct differences in how you pronounce them. For instance, read aloud the following sentences to see the differences in how you pronounce these words:
I had fun in school today; I learned about cellular biology. (verb)
I had fun today; I learnt about cellular biology. (verb)
She is the most learned student in the classroom. (adjective)
As you can see, learned is used as an adjective where the second syllable -ed is pronounced and not silent. Although it may be confusing, there are clear and definite rules to using learned and learnt in your writing. But as long as you know these key differences and similarities, you can use these words with confidence and creativity.
Related: check out this section on similar sounding words.