9
  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.".

  • 6
    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

(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.)

No.

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.

  • 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
  • 1
    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
2

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.

2

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.

2

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.

2

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]'

1

(1) Original sense: learn how tolearn to

One should make a distinction between the original sense of the structure learn how to and the common, colloquial, modern use of the structure learn how to. Originally, the expressions learn to do and learn how to do used to be quite distinct in meaning.

The form learn to do, then as today, used to refer to the acquisition of a skill.

  • what is learned is an ability, capacity, power, behavior, etc.
  • the knowledge is acquired procedurally, practically, by training, dynamically “learning by doing”
  • a natural paraphrase is ‘acquire the capability of + gerund -ing’, like speaking

(1) he whyche in choppyng of Iohns head, had learned to behead good men, [...] did now lykewise lay handes vpon Iames thapostle
(from: Udall, Nicholas (1548) The first tome or volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus vpon the Newe Testamente)

(= This describes the acquisition of “beheading” as a skill resulting from practical experience, not a theoretical understanding of “beheading” based on instruction.)

However, the original meaning of learn how to do, unlike today, was exclusively used to refer to theoretically learning about something.

  • what was learned was the correct way of doing something, the structure of a concept, etc.
  • the knowledge would be acquired theoretically, by explicit instruction, often from books, “learning by being taught”
  • a natural paraphrase is ‘acquire good + deverbal noun’, like speech

(2) we must learne how to thinke of god as he is described to us in his word:
(from: Gouge, William (1637) A commentary upon the three first chapters of the first Epistle generall of St. Peter by Nicholas Byfield)

(= This describes the acquisition of the correct understanding of God based on instruction, not the mere ability to think about God resulting from training.)

Here are a few more examples to illustrate the original sense of learn how to:

(3) so if the youthe of Englande being apte of it selfe to shote, were taught and learned how to shote, the archers of england shuld not be only a great deale raker, [...] but also a good deale bygger and stronger archers then they be
(from: Ascham, Roger (1545) Toxophilus the schole of shootinge contayned in tvvo bookes)

(=The youth of England already have the ability to shoot (“being [naturally] apt by themselves to shoot”), but if they “learned how to shoot”, i.e. by teaching and instruction, they would benefit even more.) 

(4) i learned how to become morally good; it is true i did; but is not the first precept in this knowledge, that the doctrine of manners, is it of self very vain? for it consists in doing, in action, not in knowing;
(from: Monmouth, Henry (1657) Politick discourses written in Italian by Paolo Paruta)

(= An explicit contrast is made between “learning how to be good” in theory, as “knowledge”, as opposed to its practical application “in action, not in knowing”.)

(5) Thou writest to men like thyself, subject to mortality; thou teachest them how to live, that they may learn how to die;
(from: Sheridan, Frances (1767) The History of Nourjahad)

(= This refers to the acquisition of “good death”, the correct way to die, so to speak, - in context, this means ‘learn how to accept death.’ It does not refer to the ability to die. In fact, nobody needs to learn that skill – it automatically happens to all of us eventually.) 

The following graphic illustrates the original state of affairs:

SSpace1 Figure 1: Stage 1 - the original semantic distinction between learn how to and learn to

(2) General sense: learn how tolearn to

At some point, the form learn how to has come to be used in contexts in which learn to do would originally have been used, i.e. in connection with learning an actual ability, skill or behavior. Hence, the two expressions are now essentially synonymous in many cases.

The following two examples illustrate the general sense of learn how to do something:

(6) You’re learning about Mesopotamia, true, but this assignment is teaching you much more. You’re learning how to analyze complex material quickly, how to pull essential ideas out of a text
(from: Rubin, Gretchen (2017) The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles that Reveal How to Make your Life Better)

(= This refers to acquiring the skill of “analyzing” complex material. It does not (necessarily) refer to the correct way to conduct “an analysis” of complex material. Thus, “learning to analyze complex material” would mean the same thing.)

(7) But in truth, I didn’t want to spend my birthday learning how to ride a bike.
(from: Jamison, Leslie (2018) The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath)

(= This refers to acquiring the skill of “riding a bike”. It does not (necessarily) refer to learning about “a bike ride”. Hence, “learning to ride a bike” would mean the same thing.)

The English language has thus changed. At some point, learn how to do was extended from purely academic, theoretical knowledge to, additionally, procedural, practical knowledge. The following graphic illustrates the extension of general learn how to do.

SSpace2

Figure 2: Stage 2 - Extension of learn how to, resulting in synonymy with learn to

(2a) How did this extension happen?

One pathway for the semantic extension could be the inference that, if you know the manner, the way in which something is done, you are likely to also have the skill, know about the process of doing it (“learn how to” → “learn to”). So, English speakers may reason that if, say, you learn how to speak English, about the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, then you are very likely to acquire the actual skill of speaking English as well.

The inverse also works. If you have an ability, a skill, you may be quite likely to also know something about the topic from a more theoretical perspective (“learn to” → “learn how to”). As @FumbleFingers put it “ordinarily, in order to [verb], you need to know how to [verb].”

(2b) Both the original and the general sense are available in Present-Day English

It is important to realize that the original sense of how to do has not gone away. A new, general sense was merely added; it did not replace the original sense. The form learn how to do is now ambiguous between its original and its general senses. Thus, the two structures learn to do and learn how to do are not synonymous in all cases. There are some interpretations where an original learn how to do proposition is true but a learn to do proposition would be false.

The reason is that there can be a chasm between theoretical understanding and practical ability. There may be a discrepancy between knowing about a concept and actually applying the concept in practice.

Here are a few artificial examples where the difference becomes evident.

(8a) He is learning how to drive at school.
(8b) He is learning to drive in an old Chevy truck.

(=These two sentences can be interpreted as non-synonymous. You may learn about driving a car theoretically, (8a), but have not actually mastered the skill of driving a car, (8b).)

(9a) She learned how to relax from a therapist.
(9b) She still has not learned to relax.

(=You may have learned about a meditation technique to relieve stress, (9a), but have not actually figured out how to apply this technique, (9b).)

Example from @Jay
(10a) I want to learn how to diet
(10b) I need to learn to diet

(=You may want to acquire information about dieting, (10a), but you may not actually want to use the diet information or acquire more self-discipline, (10b).)

Here are two real-life examples of learn how to do from relatively modern texts that are probably intended in the original sense, so that it would actually be odd to use learn to do.

(11a) nothing gives them a better opportunity to learn how to behave in company
(from: Post, Emily (1922) Etiquette in Society in Business in Politics and at Home)

(=This obviously refers to learning about “socially acceptable, good behavior in company” because this is a book on etiquette in fine society.)

(11b) # nothing gives them a better opportunity to learn to behave in company

(= It is inappropriate to say “learn to behave” here because this is not about learning the “skill of behaving in company”, as when a mother rebukes her child so that it becomes well-behaved.)

(12a) Tomorrow’s schools must therefore teach not merely data, but ways to manipulate it. Students must learn how to discard old ideas, how and when to replace them.
(from: Toffler, Alvin (1970) Future Shock)

( = This obviously refers to acquiring a theoretical understanding of science.  Students should learn about the conditions under which old ideas should be discarded.)

(12b) # Students must learn to discard old ideas.

(= It is inappropriate to say “learn to discard” in this context because this is not about convincing students to let their old ideas go no matter what. “Discarding” is not intended as an ability here.)

(3) General learn how to has become frequent recently

The general sense of learn how to has increased quite dramatically in frequency over the last two centuries.

The graph below shows the increase of the construction learn how to do, measured in occurrences per million words, in COHA, from 1820 till 2009.

COHAhelphowto
Figure 3: The absolute frequency of learn how to in COHA, 1820-2009

As the graph shows, there has been a c. 16-fold increase in the absolute frequency of learn how to do over the period indicated.

The next graph shows the rise of learn how to do, measured as a percentage of all structure with help and a non-finite complement, in Google Ngram viewer, from 1800 to 2000.

GoogleNgramLearnhowto Figure 4: Increase in relative frequency learn how to (vs. learn to) in Google Ngram Viwer

As shown, the relative frequency of learn how to do (vs. learn to do) has risen from c. 5% to over 25% over the indicated time period.

It does not seem implausible that this surge in “learn how to” is the reason why the present question has come up in the first place. It has only been quite recently that people could notice that learn how to and learn to have come to be used synonymously in many cases. At earlier stages of the language, speakers would have been much less likely to notice this particular aspect of language usage.

The graphic below sketches the increase in use of general learn how to do.

SSpace3 Figure 5: Stage 3 - Increase in the frequency of learn how to at the expense of learn to

(4) The acquisiton of new meanings of learn to do

Based on what is known about semantic change, one can predict with a fairly high degree of certainty that the current state of affairs is unstable and will evolve further. The reason is that languages do not generally allow for prolonged periods of synonymy between two items or structures. Speaking anthropomorphically, languages “like” distinct meanings for distinct structures; they “hate” free variation. Thus, it seems quite likely that learn to do will shift its meaning in semantic space into a niche where it is protected from the encroachment of, and distinct from, learn how to do.

This latest stage in the evolution of learn (how) to do is summarized in the following graphic.

SSpace4 Figure 6: Stage 4 - learn to shifts its meaning thus remaining distinct from learn how to

To find out what is actually going to happen, we would have to wait a century or so and see. I would not be surprised if speakers varied widely in their opinions, intuitions and assumptions about meaning differences between “learn to” and “learn how to”. That’s because during transitional periods, usage is not stable or fixed, but somewhat subjective and in flux.

For example, @mattbrehmer hypothesized that for learn to do, “the object of learning would be [a] prerequisite”. @FumbleFingers says that “"how" before an infinitive verb form places more emphasis on the learning as a relatively complex (or at least, "non-intuitive") process” etc. All of those subtleties may be correct, or they may be false. We just don’t know yet. But the uncertainty and variety of opinions are quite plausibly indicative of a linguistic state in transition.

(4a) Difference in formality

One part of the questions is if learn how to do might merely be a less formal version of learn to do. That is one possible outcome of a shift in the meaning. However, what we typically find is that the old form becomes formal and the new form becomes colloquial. Hence, if anything, one should expect that learn to do would acquire formal, not informal, overtones.

This is in fact what other commentators have suggested:

“In informal speech many people say 'learn how to [verb]' when they really mean just 'learn to [verb]'”
“rather than learn to being less formal than learn how to, it ordinarily is the other way round. [...] those with how in them have an informal ring.” (quotes from @Jim)

(4b) learn to do is shifting towards deontic readings

One meaning associated with learn to do that has been mentioned in the comments several times, albeit only implicitly, is one of deontic modality. Deontic readings are about what’s moral, right, good, proper, appropriate, socially permissible, etc. Hence, the constructions learn to do X may shift towards a meaning that can be paraphrased as ‘come to realize that it would be better to do X’. This corresponds to my intuitions as well.

For example, @FumbleFingers says, “the more recent [examples of learn to obey] invariably mean "he learned that he must obey" [N.B. deontic must]. Imho it's the meaning of the verb "to learn" that has shifted over time.”

To illustrate, consider the following examples from the previous comments:

Example from @JohnLawler
(13a) John learned (how) to speak French whenever Madame was in the room.

(= General reading: He learned the French language, grammar, pronunciation etc. whenever Madame was in the room. Perhaps Madame helped him, or was his teacher etc.) 

(13b) John learned to speak French whenever Madame was in the room.

(= Potentially new, deontic reading: John came to realize that it would be better to speak French whenever Madame was in the room. Perhaps Madame was strict or would get upset if he didn’t speak French etc.)

Example from @FumbleFingers
(14a) I wish you'd learn (how) to be quiet in church!

(=General reading: He learned the practical skill, or acquired a theoretical understanding, of being quiet)

(14b) I wish you'd learn to be quiet in church!

(= Potentially new, deontic reading: You should come to realize that it would be better to be quiet in church. Here, @FumbleFingers submits that it would be “completely wrong to include the word "how" - obviously the child already knows how to avoid making a noise”)

This would also explain the recent rise in occurrence of learn to not, which makes poor sense with the general reading (how can you acquire a non-ability), but good sense with the new deontic reading (you can realize that it’s better not to do something). The earliest example of the relevant sense I found is from 1989.

(15) Wyczynski says.'' We must learn to not abuse our powers.''
(from: Echikson, William (1989) Christian Science Monitor 1989, 12-13)

Also, adverbs indicating effortlessness like just do not work well with the general reading (you don’t “just" acquire knowledge or a skill – it takes time) but with deontic readings (you can “just” accept something). Indeed, all examples I’ve found are from very recently. This may further substantiate a recent shift in the meaning of learn to do towards deontic readings.

(16) But you have to learn to just move on.
(from: Barboza, David (2003) Facing Huge Debt, Large Farm Co-op Is Closing Down NYT, 2003, 03-19)


(17) Natalie, 42, was self-conscious about the fact that her twins did not look like her in any way. People often commented on this [...] ‘Are they yours?’ [She] was used to that had learned to simply smile and say a proud, ‘Yes.’
(from: Weidman, Evelina & Ellen Glazer (2013) Having Your Baby Through Egg Donation)

0

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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