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To learn the hard way:

to discover what you need to know through experience or by making mistakes:

  • He doesn’t want to take my advice, so I guess he'll have to learn the hard way.

I was wondering whether the expression means: **"learning through trial and error"? If no, how they differ?

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    If you learn something the hard way, that usually means something bad happens, for example to learn the hard way that driving while drunk is a bad idea might involve death of a loved one, hospital, prison, and so on. Learning through trial and error does not always carry this strong meaning. Commented Feb 12, 2022 at 21:55
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    Very often, 'learning the hard way' is what happens when people foolishly or stupidly ignore advice or warnings. Commented Feb 13, 2022 at 0:44
  • @MichaelHarvey: Indeed, see my answer. And given that clear semantics, I would say that the Cambridge dictionary gloss is a very poor one.
    – user21820
    Commented Feb 13, 2022 at 17:43
  • Heh heh. I knew a guy that learned a lesson "the hard way." It was so unpleasant for him that he started calling his ex "Epiphany."
    – Dan
    Commented Feb 13, 2022 at 22:15

3 Answers 3

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It is worth noting that "learn the hard way" is often used in conjunction with explicitly stating an alternative way and conveys that the alternative had been easier but the person[s] involved chose not to take it and hence suffer more than needed. Another example:

Governments around the world who do not heed the World Health Organization's advice on being cautious in reopening their countries may have to learn the hard way.

Whether this statement is true or not, "learn the hard way" conveys that "being cautious" is easier than suffering the consequences of premature reopening. It would be totally different to use "learn by trial and error", since that would instead convey that they do not know and are not advised of a better way.

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  • What do you think of the following definition @user21820? "To learn or understand something from one's numerous mistakes and personal, difficult and unpleasant experiences when they stupidly ignore advice or warnings." Does it cover the meaning of the idiom 100%?
    – A-friend
    Commented Feb 13, 2022 at 21:27
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    @A-friend: As Anthony said in another comment, it doesn't imply more than one mistake so "numerous" is incorrect. More generally, don't try to include many conditions in your gloss (e.g. "personal" and "stupidly"), as it makes it less likely to be correct. It's enough to say: A person learns X the hard way when he/she chooses not to take the way W indicated by X, and then suffers from the consequences, and realizes that they would have suffered less by taking W. In my example, X = "being cautious is good for their countries" and W = "being cautious in reopening their countries.
    – user21820
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 7:47
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    Note that it is often but not always a deliberate choice. It is deliberate in my given example, but it is acceptable for someone to say "I've had to learn everything in life the hard way.", which implies that they made choices in life that led to much suffering that could have been avoided if they had made different choices. It must still be a free choice, otherwise it cannot be "the hard way". If good advice is given and ignored, then a choice has been presented and the better way is not taken, leaving the hard way.
    – user21820
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 7:55
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    @A-friend: I'm not "David", so you probably pinged the wrong person. I don't agree with your modification; as I said there must always be a free choice between the easy way and the hard way, otherwise it would not be the hard way (because it would be the only way). When you call it the hard way it implies that there is necessarily another easier way. What is not necessary is advice. People may have to make choices in the absence of advice, as in the example in my above comment. But in most cases, "learn [X] the hard way" is used when advice is given but ignored.
    – user21820
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 11:42
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    @A-friend: Yes, that's more or less correct.
    – user21820
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 14:27
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The implication of "Learn the hard way" is that you will suffer as a result of the mistakes you make.

Trial and error is a way to solve a problem, not to learn.

"Learning the hard way" is not something that a person will (normally) plan to do, and probably refers to life skills.

I learnt the importance of wearing a seat belt the hard way. I spent six weeks in hospital after a minor car accident.

This is quite unlike "learning the importance of wearing a seat belt by trial and error"!

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  • Don't you think it means something like "to pay a heavy cost to learn something" @James K? If not, then I wonder how they differ? It is likely to be the key to the question.
    – A-friend
    Commented Feb 13, 2022 at 7:10
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    @A-friend Similar, but I think "learning the hard way" also implies that the cost you paid was unnecessary. That is, you could have learned the same thing in an easier way. Maybe you should have thought more carefully about what you were doing, or taken somebody's advice. But you unwisely didn't do so, and you suffered the consequences directly and painfully.
    – David
    Commented Feb 13, 2022 at 16:20
  • Thanks @David. The gist of my take on it is: "to learn or understand something from one's numerous mistakes and personal, difficult and unpleasant experiences when they stupidly ignore advice or warnings." Do you confirm 100%?
    – A-friend
    Commented Feb 13, 2022 at 21:25
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    @A-friend The mistakes or negative experiences don't have to be numerous. Children are told not to run with scissors. If a child does so anyway, trips and ends up getting hurt, you might well say that they "learnt the hard way not to run with scissors". It's generally not something that they need to do more than once in order to learn the lesson. I think that's true of most, if not all, situations where you'd use the phrase; because the consequences are particularly bad, they're very effective at teaching the lesson. Commented Feb 13, 2022 at 22:18
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    Your example is a kind of trial and error. They tried not wearing a seatbelt, and it was an error when they got into an accident and were seriously injured.
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 6:20
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No it does not mean through trial and error, in fact it sorta means just the opposite of that.

Trial and error is what happens when the answer is unavoidable to you, and you have to discover it by experimenting.

Learning the hard way, is when you learn something through experiencing it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be repetitive, but it can be, but that is not necessary here.

Here, the hard way is painful and thus through association, memorable.

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