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More often than not I come across a sentence structure like this:

Upon arrival, I learned that she was not in the town.

But if I change it this way, does it change the meaning?

Upon arrival, I came to know that she was not in the town.

Furthermore, as oerkelens came up with a good point (more common?)

Upon arrival, I found out that she was not in the town.

The Question:

Is learn preferred if it's news? Or something which is noesis? I thought of several examples and could replace learned with came to know in almost all cases (of course, except learned a lesson). Is there any instance wherein "I learned that..." cannot be replaced by "I came to know that..."

My understanding: As I said, I think learn is more common when it's news that you did not expect. On the other hand, I came to know is less surprising and subconsciously known to us as a second option. Furthermore, I found out... is something that comes after you putting some efforts.

Having said this, If you learn that she's not in the town, it's the news and bit surprising whereas If you come to know that she's not in the town, it's okay without any surprising element. You, though subconsciously, knew the possibility of the second option of her being not in the town. If you found out that she's not in the town, you made some efforts to learn/know the news.

Note: I'm particular about putting the word that in the sentences in question. Or else, I learned... and I came to know... are two different things, it's clear to me.

  • @DamkerngT. thanks. corrected forever! Though the version I used isn't incorrect either. books.google.co.in/… – Maulik V Jun 18 '14 at 5:15
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    Can I throw in the (I think even more common!) alternative of "Upon arrival I found out that she was not in town"? – oerkelens Jun 18 '14 at 6:21
  • @oerkelens this is good one. I include it. – Maulik V Jun 18 '14 at 6:39
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There's some nuanced differences between the two. I came to know implies a more lengthy, substantial or involved process of acquiring knowledge than I learned. Synonyms of come to know include come to understand and become acquainted with, which are a little more distant from learn. For example, I came to know calculus suggests a drawn out process or a deeper, more personal relationship with the subject than I learned.

I don't know of any instances where I learned cannot be validly replaced by I came to know, but I do know that the exchange doesn't always work in the other direction. I came to know my neighbor is fine, but I learned my neighbor is unsemantic (people are not facts or ideas; you cannot learn them). I discount learned a lesson here because it carries a very specific meaning and uses learn in a different sense than usual. Cambridge even lists it as a phrasal verb (or at least thinks it merits a separate entry).

However, your question includes that after both phrases. Having that makes it about some particular pieces of information. In this case, came to know is a superset of learned, because both are completed processes of acquiring knowledge, and learning is about retaining specific facts. Because of this, I can't think of any cases where one works and the other doesn't if you include that.

Regarding your example, what's the context? Was the discovery of this information expedient and easy? Is the sentence intended to be merely informational? If so, use learned. Was it very difficult or time consuming to find out the woman's status? Is it the knowledge extremely important and worth emphasizing? Are you trying to avoid being prosaic? If so, use came to know. Compare:

I flew to Bangladesh to see my cousin. After landing, I went to a restaurant to meet her and her husband. Upon arrival, I learned that she was not in town. She had to make a business trip and would return the following week.

Tracking the billionaire's wife across Europe was no easy task, but I finally found out she was in Madrid, so I double timed it over there. Upon arrival, I came to know that she was not in town. I asked around at the likely clubs and bribed clerks at the upscale hotels, but if anyone had seen her they weren't talking.

  • Yes, I am very specific about putting that in those sentences. The question, without that is quite clear to me. Looking at your answer, I thought (and so edited) that it's important to mention it there. – Maulik V Jun 18 '14 at 6:35
  • What do you think comes more as a surprise? --learn or came to know? – Maulik V Jun 18 '14 at 6:38
  • Question edited. One more sentence added (thanks to oerkelens). – Maulik V Jun 18 '14 at 6:42
  • Found out is by a wide margin the one that expresses the most surprise. If I had to pick, I'd say came to know would be more likely to describe unexpected knowledge than learned, but neither one inherently has that implication, while found out does. It's worth noting that found out is informal while the other two aren't. You might also consider discovered if you want to convey surprise. – Esoteric Screen Name Jun 18 '14 at 7:41
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When looking at the semantics of verbs, it's often useful to understand that actions are generally conceptualized as having 3 phases: 1) a beginning, 2) a happening, and 3) an ending. "Walk" is a good example. The beginning of a walk cycle is "take a step." The happening is the walk cycle itself, a person propelling herself by shifting her weight, moving her legs and feet to maintain balance, etc., and the ending is "come to a stop."

Some verbs, as we can see, are actually meant to communicate one or more phases of other verbs. "To start" and "to finish" are very general verbs used for this very purpose. "To step forward" is the beginning phase of "to walk."

Now, let's take a look at your examples. I added letters to make this simpler:

a) Upon arrival, I learned that she was not in the town.

b) Upon arrival, I came to know that she was not in the town.

c) Upon arrival, I found out that she was not in the town.

The central concept we are talking about here is the verb "to know." "To know" means something has happened in our mind so that some point of data is readily available and accepted as true based on a body of evidence, etc. "To know" has these three phases: 1) study/ponder/investigate 2) realize/find out/discover/come to know/learn, 3) know/understand. "To know" means we have passed through this 3-phase process.

The interesting thing is that the moment of discovery (i.e., phase 2) passes in an instant, but it is the moment when we go from not knowing or being certain to knowing and being certain. In our experience, it is this instant that often stands in our mind as evidence for the "truth" we know. In your Examples, the speaker has been investigating pondering, etc and upon arriving in this town, passed into phase 2.

Example a) uses "learn." "Learning" generally comes from studying or investigating. Some effort has gone into the process.

Example b) uses "come to know." This has a more passive aspect to it. The knowledge settled upon this person, but perhaps without too much effort on his own part.

Example c) uses "found out." This phrase comes between a) and b) in that it isn't as passive as "come to know," but isn't as active as "learn." Some effort may have gone into the "knowing," but there a real sense that the knowledge came without a great deal of effort. Perhaps someone revealed it.

There are nuances here and likely you'll never get a clear answer unless you speak to someone who has spent a great deal of time studying the semantics of these words.

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