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  1. She has never known that her husband was once a spy.

Some people advise against this sentence. They suggest using "learn" to replace "know". Their reason is that to know here means to learn information.

I don't understand their reasoning. How does this explanation justify the infeasibility of "know"?

I've found two sentences from a website:

  1. I've never known why my parents got divorced.

  2. I've never known how to do origami.

Sentence 2 is similar to sentence 1, where "know" means to learn new information.

In sentence 3, "know" means to learn how to do something. The similarity is to learn.

If 2 and 3 work, I can't see why 1 does not.

Could you tell me why?

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  • "She has known that her husband was once a spy" suggests she knew it but forgot it - "She has owned a dog" (without a time phrase like "for a year") suggests she once had a dog but no longer does. Your critic seems to be assuming that you can't know something and then unknow it, i.e. once you learn it you know it for good. It would help if you could provide more information on what you mean in sentence 1 (are you allowing for unknowing something you once knew?) and "some people" - is it a grammar book, a teacher, a native English speaker, Grammarly, or what?
    – Stuart F
    Jul 21, 2022 at 9:47
  • Yes, they (some native speakers) seem to indicate that I assert we can unknow something that we have already known. But I don't know how they came to this conclusion. How does my original sentence suggest that we can unknown something?
    – Stephen
    Jul 21, 2022 at 10:04
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    To me, as a native speaker (1) doesn't sound quite right even though (2) and (3) are fine, but I'm at a loss to explain why. Jul 21, 2022 at 11:32
  • While I can't fully explain why, I can account for the difference: Semantically, knowing that is very different from knowing why or how or where. In the former there is no content to the knowing: you either know it or you don't, and there is in principle a moment when your state changes from not knowing to knowing it (or vice versa!). In the second there is content in your knowing, and you can continue to acquire or modify that content over time.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 22, 2022 at 23:39

1 Answer 1

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In my view, as a native speaker, the possible problem with

(1) She has never known that her husband was once a spy.

is not that the verb should be "learned" instead of "known", rather it is the use of "has". that is the use of a perfect construction. That implies that she never knew this and still does not. Perhaps a use of the simple past might seem better:

(1A) She never knew that her husband was once a spy.

Surely, an appropriate form of the verb "learn" could be used instead of "know" but that would, I think, subtly change the meaning. It would have emphasized her initial ignorance of this fact, and the possibility of her learning it at some point, a possible event which did not occur.

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