Q&A: Lent vs leant vs leaned

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 are leaning towards lent.

Q: Hi AWC, do you know what today is?

A: That’s easy, it’s Thursday.

Q: Well, yes, but it’s also something else.

A: Elle McPherson’s birthday? 147 years since the opening of London’s Royal Albert Hall? 44 years since the Terracotta Army was discovered in China?

Q: Huh? Wait – are you on Wikipedia?

A: Maybe.

Q: Look, I’ll just tell you. Today is the last day of Lent.

A: Ah, okay Lent – that solemn religious observance in the Christian liturgical calendar that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends approximately six weeks later, three days before Easter Sunday.

Q: You’re still on Wikipedia, aren’t you?

A: Maybe.

Q: Well anyway, the tradition is to give something up during Lent. Want to know what I gave up?

A: Sure.

Q: I gave up using the word “leant”.

A: How very ‘meta’ of you.

Q: Well, anyway, I’d like to know the difference between “leant”, “lent” and “leaned” – when do I use them?

A: Okay, let’s start with “lent” – because it’s easy. It’s the past-tense of the verb “lend” – and has nothing to do with leaning whatsoever. An example would be “the cricket captain lent the player his trusty roll of yellow tape” or “I lent you my book and never got it back”.

Q: I can totally relate. A year ago I lent my cousin Dave a copy of Teach Yourself to Speed Read. He says he’s still working his way through it.

A: Right, well, that’s “lent” taken care of. Oh, and by the way, your religious observance comes from “Lencten” – an Old English word for “spring season”.

Q: I always thought it came from “lentils”. My Uncle Dave – yes, cousin Dave’s father – runs a lentil store. He can tell just by squeezing them if your lentils are good or not…

A: This is going somewhere, and we don’t like it.

Q: Yeah, so in the lentil industry, Uncle Dave is quite a legend. They say he has… his finger firmly on the pulse.

A: …

Q: Geddit? Because a pulse is a…

A: Let us never speak of this again.

Q: Well *I* thought it was funny. And the joke’s on you because Uncle Dave actually runs a chia seed store.

A: Let’s look at “leant” and “leaned” shall we?

Q: Yes please.

A: They’re both past-tense variations of the irregular verb “lean”.

Q: Why is it irregular? Does it need more fibre?

A: Irregular verbs have (among other things) past-tense versions that don’t end in -ed. So in this case, “leant” belongs to a big family, along with things like “dreamt”, “spelt” and “burnt”.

Q: We’ve covered a few of those before haven’t we?

A: Yes we have, and there are usually two interchangeable options. Americans almost exclusively go with “leaned”, but the rest of the world tends to use both. Here in Australia, many style guides keep it simple and recommend leant/dreamt/spelt versions.

Q: I thought you might be leaning that way.

A: The point is that you can use either – although “leaned” will make more sense to an American audience. That said, sometimes “leant” just sounds better. The Macquarie Dictionary recognises both.

Q: So you could say that the tower in Pisa leaned off to one side?

A: Yes.

Q: But you could also say that the baker leant her broom against the door?

A: Correct. But beware that if you do use “leant”, some readers may think it looks out of place, like wearing a formal suit to the beach.

Q: Or a bathing suit to a nudist beach, am I right?

A: Indeed.

Q: So, “lent” is the past-tense of lend and either “leaned” or “leant” is acceptable as the past-tense of lean. However, “leant” is not everyone’s grammatical cup of tea. Yeah?

A: Exactly. So, it’s definitely possible to give up the word “leant” for Lent.

Q: I knew it.

A: You’re a fast learner!

Q: No, I’ve only been fasting on Fridays…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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