Q&A: Earnt vs earned

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we earn our keep…

Q: Hi AWC, I saw online this week that Jo in our community was discussing the word “earnt” – and whether it’s okay to use it instead of “earned”. So, is it?

A: Good question!

Q: I thought so.

A: There are a whole raft of words that fall into this “-t or -ed” category.

Q: A raft you say? Why are these words on a raft? Did their boat sink?

A: The “floating platform” raft definition dates back to the 1500s. The newer “large collection” meaning is from the 1830s and is a variant of “raff” – a Middle English word for a heap or large amount.

Q: Okay, enough with this riff raff – back to “earnt” please!

A: Sure. Let’s start with the word “earn” – Germanic in origin, with links to being rewarded for labour or a “harvest”. In fact, guess what the German word for harvest is?

Q: Ummm… “eizenscheizen”?

A: No! It’s “ernte”.

Q: Oh, yes, that makes more sense.

A: The simple past tense or past participle of “earn” does pose a question however – whether it should be “earnt” or “earned”.

Q: Well exactly.

A: For starters, there is absolutely no difference in meaning between the two. It’s really about usage. And to that end, it’s both geographic and method based.

Q: Gosh, that sounds fancy. Do go on.

A: It’s safe to say that “earned” has earned the right to be called the preferred past tense version – across the globe in fact.

Q: Huzzah! Case closed.

A: For Americans, yes indeed – case closed. They only recognise “earned” and the idea of “earnt” is about as common as saying “eizenscheizen”. This preference to “-ed” versions is fairly universal, by the way.

Q: I do envy the certainty with which America seems to make its word decisions.

A: Yes, they like to keep things simple for the most part. It frees up time for sorting out things like healthcare and gun control.

Q: Quite. So what about the rest of the world?

A: Typically here in Australia we follow British English rules – where “earned” and “earnt” have over the years both been acceptable. In fact, our Macquarie Dictionary lists both without qualification in the entry for “earn”.

Q: So how do we know which to choose?

A: It would seem that despite “earnt” being used in SPOKEN English outside America, “earned” is overwhelmingly favoured for writing – and has been for some time. So, all roads point to using “earned”, perhaps unless writing colloquial dialogue.

Q: I’m guessing “earned” isn’t going to offend anyone.

A: That’s right – it has earned the respect of the entire world, while “earnt” will elicit a few strange looks from some people. Sure, Charles Dickens used “earnt” in his writings, but to paraphrase Dorothy, “Toto, we’re not in the 1880s anymore”.

Q: Please sir, can I have some more clarification?

A: Sure. The biggest and most telling point of “earnt” fading from usage has been its removal from the Oxford English Dictionary. That says it all really. Other web-based dictionaries (i.e. “Wiktionary”) still list it, although usually as, “correct but not common”.

Q: So Australia is actually hanging on to “earnt” longer than the British?

A: So it would seem. “Earnt” would appear to be more commonly used today in Australia and New Zealand than in England. But it’s still not as common as “earned”.

Q: Wait, isn’t that famous beer campaign for a “hard earnt thirst”?

A: Nope. The Victoria Bitter campaign you’re referring to was actually “a hard earned thirst”. It’s been used for more than 50 years, as this vintage ad proves. So hey, if it’s good enough for VB drinkers, we probably should rest our case.

Q: So do other words like “learnt” work the same way?

A: Well, the question of “learned vs learnt” definitely comes up in the same way – even in the US (where “earned vs earnt” is non-existent). Yet “learnt” is not nearly as endangered as “earnt” – in fact, it’s the preferred version in Australia.

Q: Well, I think we’ve learnt enough for one day and earned a cold beer.

A: And the best cold beer is…


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