Did you learn about linguistics at school? To be more precise, are you over the age of 27? If the answer to either of those questions is “yes”, then you might know about participles. If you answered “no’” then you probably don’t. If you answered “yes” and then “no”, or vice versa, well… I don’t know. I’d hoped that wouldn’t happen.
The difference between learned and learnt, or burned and burnt, lies within the scope of a tiny but important English variant: the past participle tense. It’s created with the use of participles – your learnts, burnts, spilts and lepts.
If you’re unfamiliar with the use of participles it’s because these days, due to the downfall of the institution which I like to call Speaking Correctly, and because humans have learnt (HA!) that a fewer number of variables is a better number of variables (especially when the people who like those variables are puny and easily physically bested), those words mentioned aren’t seen as holding differing meanings (so don’t believe the first few entries on Google Answers). But they do! Example:
I learned French.
I’ve learnt French.
When you say you learned something, the meaning conveyed is not only that the learning event was in the past, but that it’s probably finished now. The ‘learnt’ meaning is that yes, the learning happened in the past, and its application may still exist today and in the future – maybe you’re still learning it. Probably in that case you’d add another word to the sentence: “I’ve learnt French before”; similarly, “I’ve burnt toast before, and I plan to do it in the future, many times”. Been is a participle of the verb to go, as in “I’ve been to Disneyland before, and I plan to do it in the future, many times” compared with “I went to Disneyland when I was five”.
Surprise Educational Experience: Apparently, the word cookt used to exist: “I’ve cookt for my mother for the last fifteen years, and she still won’t acknowledge my brilliance” (the cooking started in the past and will continue, as will the lack of maternal respect). Sadly, that wee gem isn’t around anymore (although I plan to use it).
There is one definite rule with participles – they need an auxiliary verb. That’s just some lingo you can throw around if you want to seem smart, cos it really just means you need to use have or had before the participle, like in the above examples. Otherwise it won’t make sense. Well, it will make sense to those who don’t care, but to us puny and easily physically bested dorks it’s tantamount to gibberish.
One last thing – learned, burned, leaped, spilled, blessed, and all those other –ed words can be used as present participle qualifiers. Now, that sounds dumb, but really it means that you can add a syllable to the -ed word and make it describe a thing in a very scholarly-sounding way, like this: “Queen’s Brian May is actually a very learn-ed man”, or “Indeed, this French toast has bless-ed us all”, or “Yikes, this stove has burn-ed me”… VERY cool.