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Is the past tense for the word "earn" "earned" or "earnt", and does the word "earnt" even exist?

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    As an aside, I came across this Q. because I was writing an answer to another question and (as a Brit) I automatically wrote earnt - the spell-checker didn't like it, so I investigated and came across this Q. – TrevorD Jun 15 '16 at 12:41
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According to the Wiktionary, "earnt" is correct but not common:

This is an uncommon (<0.5% as common as earned in the British National Corpus) but entirely acceptable alternative form of the simple past and past participle earned. Still considered to be incorrect by many, who are largely unaware of the historical development of the English language.

"Earned" is much more common. The Merrian-Webster online dictionary doesn't even have an entry for "earnt". The entry for "earned" is here: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/earned

According to the same Wictionary page,

Other verbs which can be conjugated in this way are: learn (learnt), dream (dreamt), spell (spelt).

But it should be noted that "learnt", "dreamt" and "spelt" are more common than "earnt". See comments below.

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    Er, "learnt and "spelt" are still perfectly common in non-American usage. – ShreevatsaR Sep 21 '10 at 11:06
  • @ShreevatsaR - yeah, but notice that this doesn't contradict what the Wikitionary says. It says that "earnt" is uncommon. – b.roth Sep 21 '10 at 12:04
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    Indeed. I agree that "earnt" is uncommon (and the passage is right); I was just afraid someone may think "learnt" or "spelt" were uncommon or considered incorrect. (BTW: According to the British National Corpus, "learnt" occurs between one-third to one-half as often as "learned", while "spelt" is about twice as common as "spelled".) – ShreevatsaR Sep 21 '10 at 12:29
  • The interesting thing about these is that the more common spelling with '–ed' reflects the way in which they SHOULD BE pronounced according to the phonetics, but that the less common spelling with '–t' reflects the way they ARE pronounced. – Barrie England Nov 27 '11 at 8:22
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    In the U.S., they are often pronounced as spelled, with 'd'. – Peter Shor Nov 14 '12 at 19:41
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Yes, "earnt" is common in Australian English (and is probably common in other areas as well).

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  • No offense meant, but to add perspective: in American English it sounds quaint and hillbilly-ish. Probably because some very old English constructs are still used in the Appalachian mountains. Just like using "naught" to literally mean "zero" (as opposed to using it rather poetically to mean "nothing", as in "We did it all for naught.") – Wayne May 17 '11 at 15:32
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    @Wayne, ‘nothing’ is the original meaning of ‘nought’. A literal zero is a later sense. The word is a contraction of what was in Old English ne ā wiht ‘not aye (a) whit’ (‘aye’ here in the sense ‘ever’ still common in Scotland, as in for aye ‘forever’). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 6 '14 at 14:01
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"Earnt" clearly exists, both as a spelling and as a corresponding pronunciation that is distinct from "earned".

The formation of "earnt" is irregular, but not randomly so: the past-tense/past-participle marker takes or may take the form -t after /n/ in some other words, such as burnt, learnt, or after the phonologically similar sounds /l/ (felt, knelt) or /m/ (dreamt). The exact development of these kinds of irregular past-tense forms seems somewhat unclear (there was a separate question about it Why does the preterite of verbs such as "deal", "feel" and "dream" have a devoiced dental suffix?), but that doesn't change the fact that standard English includes many irregular past-tense/past-participle forms in -t.

Whether something "exists" in the sense of "is accepted as a word" is a matter of opinion. Sometimes, there is widespread agreement; sometimes, there is disagreement.

  • There is no simple principle that will allow you to objectively determine whether something "is a word". For example, "syllabus" is widely considered to be "a word" even though etymologists think that it originated as a mistake.

  • At most, you could determine whether some specific person or organization accepts the use of some particular word or word-form (such as "earnt").

"Earnt" seems to be uncommon, not only in American English but also in standard written British English.

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  • Not to mention met, meant, wept, slept, kept, knelt, crept, leapt, lent, blent, rent, left, lost, sent, lit, blest, smelt, spelt, spilt, spoilt and all the many more, not excluding the eat > et pronunciation for ate by some speakers. – tchrist Feb 10 '19 at 22:19

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