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Is learnt UK English and learned US? Is it that simple?

I’m used to using learnt, but my US spellchecker says it is wrong.

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Ever since I was a child, I always spelt it learnt, dreamt, leapt etc. I failed many English tests due to these spelling errors. It just doesn't look or feel right when I spell or say learned, dreamed, leaped etc. Maybe I'm stuck in a past life in 1810. –  user52034 Sep 14 '13 at 12:56
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2 Answers

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Merriam-Webster marks learnt as "chiefly British", and Wiktionary as "UK", adding that learned is the "Standard US English spelling". Quoting a linguist's comment from elsewhere,

[The Corpus of Historical American English] shows that learned has always been more common than learnt in American English. At least, since 1810.

So it's not like learnt is completely unheard of in Americal English, but learned has always been more popular, and according to the COHA timetable, the usage of learnt has been on a more or less steady decline since 1820:

alt text

(X axis: year, Y axis: incidences per million words.)

Nowadays, according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, learnt is most popular in the context of fiction and academic publications, and least popular in newspapers:

           learned   learnt     RATIO

SPOKEN        9370       18     520.6
FICTION       9624       88     109.4
MAGAZINE     11924       18     662.4
NEWSPAPER     9224        6    1537.3
ACADEMIC      8921       96      92.9

What's more, even the British National Corpus has more cites for learned than for learnt. The stats look as follows:

           learned   learnt     RATIO

SPOKEN         161      291       0.6
FICTION       1066      409       2.6
MAGAZINE       341      171       2.0
NEWSPAPER      459      151       3.0
NON-ACADEMIC   778      321       2.4
ACADEMIC       837      273       1.6
MISC          1588      537       3.0

It is worth noting that Merriam-Webster, Wiktionary, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, and Collins English Dictionary all list learned as both a verb form and an adjective, but learnt only as a verb form.

Lastly, here's a related question: Dreamed vs. Dreamt, Leaped vs. Leapt, Lighted vs. Lit.

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wow, detailed answer, thanks! How did you do all that research? Great! –  Wikis Nov 12 '10 at 19:20
    
Fantastic, thanks. I learned lots from this post! –  Chris Dowdeswell May 25 '12 at 8:46
    
I thought it best to point out that the quote you posted, is no longer available on the link. Maybe it was on a different question or the original comment was deleted. –  Mari-Lou A Sep 14 '13 at 16:39
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In American English, "learned" is the usual spelling; "learnt" is too rare.

In British English, both "learned" and "learnt" exist for the verb, but the adjective (as in "the learned professor") is always "learned". (Sometimes, especially archaically, "learnèd".)

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nice, succinct answer, thanks. –  Wikis Nov 12 '10 at 19:20
    
would it be a grave on learnèd rather than an acute? –  John Ferguson Aug 17 '11 at 15:14
    
@John: You're right, "learnéd" should have been "learnèd". Fixed now. –  ShreevatsaR Aug 17 '11 at 16:30
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The accent is used in American publications too, to emphasize that it's the adjective: "Sanskrit was usually both a learned and learnèd language", etc. –  ShreevatsaR Dec 14 '11 at 5:58
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@tchrist: Neither of them is a requirement on the site, as far as I know. I prefer to use quotes for terms, and italics only for emphasis. Please do not change trivial things like this, which are a matter of style and author's preference. –  ShreevatsaR Sep 3 '12 at 5:24
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