I am wondering what "we learned" means in the following sentences:

I notice Will and Dad sizing each other up surreptitiously. In Dad’s company, oddly, Will seems a little diminished, a little less himself. Looking at him, in his pressed shirt and chinos, I’m worried that to Dad he might seem privileged and glib, very much the ex-public schoolboy.

‘I can’t believe this is the first time you’ve met,’ I say. Not for want of bloody trying. Will and I flew to New York specially a few months ago. At the last minute, we learned, Dad had been called away on business in Europe. I imagined our planes crossing somewhere over the Atlantic. Dad is a Very Busy Man. Too busy, even, to meet his daughter’s fiancé until the eve of her wedding. Story of my bloody life.

  • Lucy Foley, The Guest List, Chapter 14

This is a thriller novel published in 2020 in the United Kingdom. One hundred and fifty guests would be gathering at some remote and deserted fictional islet called Inis an Amplóra off the coast of the island of Ireland to celebrate the wedding between Jules (a self-made woman running an online magazine called The Download) and Will (a celebrity appearing in a TV show program called Survive the Night). The day before the actual wedding day, to attend the rehearsal dinner, Jules' dad comes to the island. So finally, Jules' dad and Will meet each other first time at this moment.

In this part, I am wondering whether it would be all right to understand that "we learned" implies that Jules and Will arrived at Jules' dad's place, but "were told" (by someone present, such as his secretary or some other person) that he was called away on business in Europe.

Or, could it be that they just "knew/saw" that her father was away, seeing the absence of her father...?

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    to learn = to find out, since no one has bothered to say it.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 17, 2021 at 22:55
  • 1
    It means no more than "they didn't know this fact until the last minute." It implies nothing about how they found out.
    – alephzero
    Commented Apr 17, 2021 at 22:55
  • Thank you very much everybody for the explanations! Such a shame that I cannot choose all the answers and comments as accepted answers... All of your explanations were really helpful. I sincerely appreciate your help. :) Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 9:26

3 Answers 3


We learned definitely implies that they heard (or read) that that was the case, not that they saw something and deduced it themselves.

It is a rather literary use of learn - people don't use it much in ordinary speech.

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    +1, am American and don't find "we learned" terribly formal here, but it might be formal to British ears.
    – hunter
    Commented Apr 17, 2021 at 18:06
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    Lexico (Oxford dictionary) disagrees with you: #1.2 "Become aware of (something) by information or from observation. lexico.com/definition/learn Also, this is not at all "literary" in BrE in my expriernce.
    – alephzero
    Commented Apr 17, 2021 at 22:53
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    @alephzero: maybe. There are only a couple of the examples in the lexico entry which might be by observation, and I find it hard to interpret them that way. The OED says " To acquire knowledge of (a fact); to become acquainted with or informed of (something); to hear of, ascertain " , which while it does not exclude observation does not specifically mention it. I also wonder when either you or hunter last said "I/we/they learned" in this sense in conversation. I would say "hear", "read", "found out" but not "learnt".
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 13:18

"At the last minute, we learned, Dad had been called away on business in Europe." is ambiguous.

It would normally be interpreted to mean that they learned it from someone else, that is to say, someone else informed them, in which case the author should have written 'we learned from his secretary' or 'we learned from Dad that he had been' or something like that. It's somewhat unusual for 'learned' to be used like this without any clue being given as to how it was learned.

Probably, 'we were informed' would have been clearer, if this was he intended meaning.

Given the casual style of the writing one is left wondering what exactly the intended meaning is.

It is unclear whether it is ironic. The author may have intended to suggest that in fact the father had not really been called away on business.


It means the same as “When we arrived, we learned that Dad had been called away at the last minute.”

Inserting “we learned” in the middle of another clause is a grammatical structure that I rarely see outside of literature or formal writing, and it’s confusing in speech unless intoned properly. I don’t know the term for it, but hopefully someone will comment/edit with that.

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