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The dogs learned to read fairly well, but were not interested in reading anything except the Seven Commandments. Muriel, the goat, could read somewhat better than the dogs, and sometimes used to read to the others in the evenings from scraps of newspaper which she found on the rubbish heap. Benjamin could read as well as any pig, but never exercised his faculty. So far as he knew, he said, there was nothing worth reading. Clover learnt the whole alphabet, but could not put words together.

This is a quote from Animal Farm.

I know that learnt is the BrE version of learned. There're native speakers say that these two are interchangeable, even using both of them in the same dialogue/writting is acceptable in an informal situation. As I know, however. Orwell is a careful writer, hence the inconsistency in his book, and what's more, in the same paragraph should be deliberate. So I want to know the reason he did it, do these two words have different meanings or any difference in nuance?

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    My guess is that he was accidentally inconsistent. You might consider asking this on Literature Stack Exchange. May 4 at 14:52
  • I agree with @MichaelHarvey. The inconsistency may also have been introduced by an editor or even a publisher. Without more information, we can only speculate. May 4 at 15:34
  • @MarcInManhattan, I have thought about this some more. I think it is possible that Orwell/Blair chose deliberately to use the 'bigger' word 'learned' for what the dogs did (they could read fairly well) and the smaller, more local and --perhaps-- less formal 'learnt' for the small accomplishment of Clover. Failing that, he might have just been seeking to avoid tedious repetition. As preachers notes, Orwell was a careful writer. May 4 at 19:01
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    It might be as well to note that 'learnt' is not 'wrong' in American English, just so much a minority usage that many native speakers may never have heard or read it. In British writing, for instance, it appears about once for every three instances of learned. In the U.S. and Canada, meanwhile, learnt appears only once for approximately every 500 instances of learned, and it’s generally considered colloquial. May 4 at 19:03
  • @MichaelHarvey I wouldn't say "colloquial". We tend to consider the "-t" past tense ending more British, as with "dreamt" or "burnt". (Except in cases like "slept", of course, when it is required.) May 5 at 0:05

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It's true that writers and editors are usually concerned with consistency within their writing and publications. But really, no rule of grammar has been broken here. It is only an inconsistency if you insist that there must be consistency.

Although some dictionaries say that words like 'burnt' and 'learnt' are 'predominantly' British English, while 'burned' and 'learned' are 'preferred' in American English, this is a little misleading, as native British speakers use both variants. This is especially true in creative writing, where the use of one or the other can support a rhyme scheme. For example, 'dreamed' could rhyme with 'seemed', while 'dreamt' could rhyme with 'spent'. The songs 'I Dreamed A Dream' and 'Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me' were both written (or translated in the case of the former) by British English composers. In everyday speech, there is no rule that says an individual must exclusively use one or the other. I certainly use both without even thinking about it.

We can only speculate why this seeming inconsistency exists in this classic book, but any author writing as a 'stream of consciousness' is likely to include any 'inconsistencies' that would exist in normal speech.

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