Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Learnt vs learned

Mr T likes to get his grammar and spelling all correct when he writes facebook posts, so he checks things he's not sure about. Last night he suddenly realised he didn't know what the difference was between learnt and learned (as the past tense form of the verb learn). He googled it, and after a few dictionary entries, one of my posts was on the first page of hits. He was quite frankly astonished: of all the blogs in all the world, he had to google across mine.

I'm really pleased about that, but surprised. Does that mean that it's only me using the word learnt? I can't believe it's just me and the dictionaries. It looks like it's used more in the UK than in the US, which would explain a big lack of it on the internet. Still, there must be other British bloggers out there. For the record, either is completely acceptable and there is no preference for either in terms of formality or 'correctness'. I use learnt mostly just because that's what's in my idiolect. But if I were to justify it, well, I like it better. I like irregular verbs, I think they're pretty. And they often have something to reveal about language.

Steven Pinker, in his Words and Rules, notes the unusual fact that the 'default' (i.e. regular) plural suffix in German is -s, despite the fact that it's nowhere near the most common plural marker. He argues this on account of the fact that it's the suffix chosen for nonce words and proper names, which aren't normally pluralised. In English, although we spell our regular past tense suffixes -ed, there are actually three: /d/, /t/ and /ɪd/. I wonder if one could argue that the default one is /t/, based on the fact that it surfaces in such forms as learnt, dreamt and sent.

Furthermore, if we stopped using these irregular past tense forms, we'd lost interesting facts like this one: dreamt is the only word in English to end in the letter combination mt (apart from derived forms like daydreamt).

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