60-second fix: learnt or learned?

Close-up of hand holding stopwatchIs it learnt or learned? Spelt or spelled? Dreamt or dreamed? If you’re unsure, you’re in good company, writes Cathy Relf. Neither the dictionaries nor the newspapers agree, so it’s hardly surprising that the rest of us are confused. We carried out a quick Twitter poll and found that opinions were scattered. So, let’s clean up the confusion.

Dictionaries differ

The Oxford and Collins dictionaries agree that both spellings are acceptable, but offer no usage guidance. For learn, dream and spell, Oxford lists the –ed spelling first, noting that learnt and spelt are used chiefly in British English. Collins agrees, except in the case of spell, for which it lists spelt as the primary spelling.

So do the papers

In the newspaper style guides, opinion is split. The Guardian specifies spelled for the past tense and  spelt for the past participle (So I spelled it that way in the past, but I have spelt it this way today), while The Times and The Telegraph stick to  spelt in both instances.

The Times prefers learnt, while The Guardian says to stick to learned ‘unless you are writing old-fashioned poetry’. The Telegraph says: ‘learnt is what one did with a lesson: learned describes an erudite person’. (Good point: don’t forget that learned doubles up as an adjective, meaning wise or well educated, and spelt as a noun, meaning a variety of wheat.)

It’s a similar story with dreamThe Guardian says to use dreamed, while The Times and The Telegraph specify dreamt.

It’s a British/American thing

Clear as mud? Thank goodness, then, for The Economist, which simply lists the –t endings as British English and the –ed endings as American English.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage agrees. It acknowledges that both spellings are acceptable, but notes that the  –t endings are more common in British English, learned is more common as the past form and dreamed is used for emphasis and in poetry.

What to do?

Unless your company has a preference, it’s really up to you – just pick one and then stay consistent. If you’re a patriotic type (and, erm, British), then  learnt, spelt and dreamt may appeal. Indeed, we in the Emphasis office are fond of the  –t ending.

However, bear in mind that as  –t endings are peculiar to the British, they do come with a slight hint of fustiness. If you’re writing for an international audience, you may wish to switch to  learned, spelled and dreamed instead.

More 60-second fixes:

Get your free business-writing lesson