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  1. "learn to [verb]"
  2. "learn how to [verb]"

Is [1] merely a less formal version of [2]? If not, does [1] communicate something subtly different? Consider the following:

In [2], the object of learning is explicitly "how to [verb]" (for instance, "I will learn how to speak French").

Is the object of learning in [1] "to [verb]" or is it something implicit and abstract that allows the subject "to [verb]"? For instance, in "I will learn to speak French", the object of learning would be the prerequisite elements for speaking French: "French phonemes, grammar, syntax, etc.".

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This is some pretty fine hair-splitting. There is functionally no difference between "learn to think" and "learn how to think" in English; in the former, the "how" is implicit. There is perhaps a slight stylistic difference in choosing the latter, as it may suggest a minor emphasis on the details of learning. –  Robusto Feb 28 '12 at 18:07
@Robusto: Agreed. Such fine hair-splitting that I think it's almost meaningless to analyse some subtle difference in meaning that might lead you to choose one over the other in most circumstances (but I just might be tempted to think of a context where only one version is acceptable! :) –  FumbleFingers Feb 28 '12 at 18:23

6 Answers 6

(Note: this question is significantly more complicated than it sounds -- or than I expected when I encountered it. I present below perhaps more analysis than I need to, but I think it's all relevant.)


They are quite different constructions, although (especially in the context of language learning), these two are effectively equivalent. Most English constructions that resemble one another have some points of overlap, even if they aren't always (or even usually) synonymous.

(1) is an infinitive Object Complement with Equi, governed by the matrix verb learn. That means that the direct object of the verb learn in (1) is an entire clause.

Let's use a real example instead of variables:

  • He learned to put the car in the garage.

The clausal object of learn here is (for him) to put the car in the garage.

Note, first, that the subject of the verb put in the subordinate clause is the same as the subject of the verb learn in the main clause: for him (which consists of the infinitive complementizer for and the subject him) has been deleted, under coreference with the matrix clause subject. That's what Equi means.

Second, note that this is not necessarily the same as the equivalent example of (2)

  • He learned how to put the car in the garage.

They can be synonymous, but the first one can also mean that he learned that he should put it in the garage, or he learned when he should put it in the garage, or why, etc. The second one refers specifically, and only, to learning manner and means (i.e, how).

In the case of language learning, there's another wrinkle -- in English, learn language means learn how to speak language, and thus it's almost inevitable that learn to speak language normally means the same thing.

But it's possible, in context, to interpret it differently:

  • He learned to speak French whenever Madame was in the room.

Finally, there's the question of what the object construction is in (2). This is a rather peculiar construction, an infinitive embedded question. Embedded questions are one of the standard varieties of complement in English, and they always start with a Wh-word. Ask is a verb that can govern an embedded question complement, and so is learn:

  • Bill asked me when/why/how/whether Mary studied German.
  • Bill learned when/why/how/whether Mary studied German.

Note the possibility of the Wh-word whether here. This is diagnostic for embedded question constructions; whether cannot be used as a relative or free interrogative pronoun. It's the Wh-word that one puts before a Yes/No question when it's embedded, and that's its only use.

(2), however, is an infinitive, not a tensed question. Infinitives are always reductions from some type of clause, but it's sometimes difficult to see what kind. There is also such a thing as a relative infinitive clause, for instance, which is a relative clause that's been modified to make it an infinitive:

  • the man that __ should deal with this ~ the man __ to deal with this (subject)
  • the man that one should talk to __ about this ~ the man to talk to __ about this (object)

Relative infinitives normally don't allow relative pronouns; the following are ungrammatical:

  • *the man who to deal with this
  • *the man whom to talk to about this

unless the relative pronoun is Pied-Piped with a preposition; then the pronoun is obligatory:

  • the man with whom to talk about this

So the existence of a Wh-word at the beginning of how to Verb means this can't be a relative infinitive, and the grammaticality of whether identifies it as an embedded question.

The subject of how to Verb, however, while it can be identical to the subject of its matrix verb (learn in (2)), can just as easily be indefinite -- i.e, learn how one can/should/must Verb. Relative and embedded question infinitive constructions usually have a modal sense, whence the modal auxiliaries here.

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The OP said "learn to [verb] vs. learn how to [verb]" — not "learn to [verb phrase] vs. learn how to [verb phrase]"; your example doesn't apply in cases of a single verb: "learn to drive" vs. "learn how to drive" or "learn to cook" vs. "learn how to cook" etc. –  Robusto Feb 28 '12 at 20:19
The OP probably doesn't usually make the distinction (any more than most posters here do). They do give, however, one full sentence as an example: (for instance, "I will learn how to speak French"). –  John Lawler Feb 28 '12 at 20:22
Still, the distinction does exist. –  Robusto Feb 28 '12 at 20:35
It's interesting to look at GB for he learned to obey, where it seems to me most of the earlier instances could reasonably be replaced by "he learned how to obey", whereas the more recent ones invariably mean "he learned that he must to obey". Imho it's the meaning of the verb "to learn" that has shifted over time. –  FumbleFingers Feb 28 '12 at 23:33
Probably it's had those meanings all along and they are merely the best fit to the context in these sentences. As for Robusto's assertion, any case of "learn to [verb]" alone, without any more VP, is a case of a simple VP. Any example of VP, however, is always the head of a clause, with a subject, and perhaps other, optional, constituents that have been deleted and/or are to be presupposed in context. In other words, strings are not necessarily syntactic constituents. –  John Lawler Aug 21 '13 at 15:13

I thoroughly agree with @Robusto's comment that there's no real difference, since ordinarily, in order to [verb], you need to know how to [verb].

Having said that, here are 77 instances of "I wish you would learn to be [some adjectival phrase]" in Google Books. There's not a single instance of "I wish you would learn how to be".

It's just about possible to say that including the word "how" before an infinitive verb form places more emphasis on the learning as a relatively complex (or at least, "non-intuitive") process, but I think this is taking pedantry to extremes.

The only relevant point is that in "informal" usage like I wish you'd learn to be quiet in church!, it's completely wrong to include the word "how" - obviously the child already knows how to avoid making a noise, so "learn" has a somewhat different meaning here.

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My first impulse was to agree with Robusto's comment that they are synonymous. And in general I think this is true. "I want to learn to speak French" and "I want to learn how to speak French" mean the same thing.

But sometimes "learn to" means "make a decision to do", rather than "become informed about the subject". To take Robusto's example, "You should learn how to think" almost surely means to learn logic, deductive reasoning, examining arguments critically, etc. But "You should learn to think before you act!" means something quite different. This is an admonition to not behave rashly, rather than an encouragement to education.

Similarly, "I want to learn how to diet" probably means that the speaker wants to acquire information about dieting techniques. "I need to learn to diet" most likely means that the speaker wants to acquire more self-discipline.

Granted, this is very idiomatic and dependent on context.

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Knowing 'how' something is done is not quite the same as actually being able to do it. As Monty Python says, to play a flute you simply "blow in one end and move your fingers up and down on the other."

In informal speech many people say 'learn how to [verb]' when they really mean just 'learn to [verb]'

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Here is the difference as I see it:

You will someday learn to choose your battles.

He promised the conductor he would learn how to follow 12/8 time signatures.

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You ask whether learn to is "merely a less formal version" of learn how to, and if not, whether the two forms communicate subtly different meanings. As noted in a previous answer and as shown in examples near the end of this answer, rather than learn to being less formal than learn how to, it ordinarily is the other way round.

Regarding the first question, in many cases no substantial difference in meaning can be distinguished, but in almost every case, subtle differences can be distinguished. In most cases, no difference should be distinguished, because most readers will usually treat the two forms as if equivalent, and distinguishing them on the basis of quite-subtle differences will not accurately reflect common English usage.

Consider, for example, "Learn How to Communicate with Your Dog" from examples below. "Learn how to communicate" may be construed as (i) "become able to communicate [without knowing anything about how it is done]", or (ii) "find out communication techniques [but not become able to use them]" and so forth, as suggested by the Monty Python example mentioned earlier, or - and most commonly - (iii) "become acquainted with communication techniques and become able to use them".

"Learn to communicate" may be construed as with meaning (iii) above, or as (iv) "develop the habit of communicating", or (v) "find out you ought to communicate". But most people will take both of "Learn to communicate" and "Learn how to communicate" with meaning (iii), making the other readings mostly irrelevant.

You may find it useful to review links from ngrams for learn how to,learn to. For example, among 1994-2008 book references one finds items like "Learn to Surf", "learn how to play guitar easily", "Learn to Meditate", "Learn to Crochet"; among 2003-2008 book references, "Learn how to program: using any Web browser", "The Dog Listener: Learn How to Communicate with Your Dog", "Drawing Dragons: Learn How to Create Fantastic Fire-Breathing Dragons", "Learn How to Start a Cash Only Medical Practice". In these book-title examples, whether how appears apparently depends on if the title sounds better with it; and in many cases, those with how in them have an informal ring.

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