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In my thesis I am quoting a passage from a paper in which the author* used the word "learnable" in the sense of something that is easy to be learned.

I have searched for the word in both the Merriam-Webster and the Cambridge English online dictionaries, but didn't find it there. Nevertheless, this word seems to be used quite a lot in many scientific papers, it returns 775,000 results on Google and a lot of occurrences in Wikipedia.

So I ask: is this a valid word in English or, perhaps, just a neologism?

* he is from the University of South Florida and has a common American name - just in case somebody finds this relevant

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    Pay no attention whatever to that 776,000 Google gives you: it's not a count, just a guess. In fact, if you track down to the end of the hits Google will only show you 880, and some of those are merely adjacent occurrences of learn and able. – StoneyB Jun 6 '14 at 23:57
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    Its in Collins... learn – user3169 Jun 7 '14 at 2:09
  • Is it pronounceable? Is it formed according to established rules? Most importantly, is the meaning clear to your everyday English speaker? If all answers are "yes", then it's a word. :) Whether someone will think it sounds odd, is a whole other question. – cHao Jun 7 '14 at 5:14
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    It's in the 1913 edition of Webster's Dictionary as well: "a. Such as can be learned.". – Håkan Lindqvist Jun 7 '14 at 14:45
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    Not only did Valiant use the term in the 1984 paper mentioned by @Floris, but that paper started a whole field on the mathematical theory of learnability. Within theoretical computer science, it's definitely a word. – Max Jun 7 '14 at 15:11
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Learnable has been in use at least since the early 17th century.

By and large, when you find that an ordinary suffix has been attached to a word of the sort it is ordinarily attached to, and that the resulting sense is exactly that which such compounds ordinarily bear, it’s a legitimate word regardless of whether it appears in a dictionary. That’s what linguists mean when they say that a suffix or idiomatic pattern is ‘productive’: that it is regularly used to create valid new words or phrases.

(And observe, please, that calling a term a neologism does not ‘invalidate’ it, whatever that might mean. To say a word is ‘valid’ can only mean that it is used and understood within its particular context or register, regardless of its age.)

In this case, -able is regularly attachable to any transitive VERB to express the meaning capable of being VERBed. Learn is a transitive verb, and learnable means capable of being learned. That’s all it takes.

  • Thank you for the note about the neologism. Very useful. :) – Luiz Vieira Jun 7 '14 at 0:12
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Of course learnable is a word. Perhaps most people tend to use the term teachable instead of learnable; they do not seem to understand that teachable refers to someone who can be taught, and not something that can teach us anything. It's surprising how poorly Americans use the English language.

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