Sorry, I’ve burned/burnt the toast.
Over time, he learned/learnt to accept it.
She spilled/spilt the milk all over the table.
You’ve spelled/spelt that word wrong.
I dreamed (DREEMD)/dreamt (DREMT) about you last night.
Is this variation purely arbitrary? Not really. But it’s not strictly rule-governed either. Which form is used depends partly on geography, partly on grammatical function, and partly on the particular word in question. In other words, it’s another one of those fuzzy bits of language.
Let’s look at geography first. In the above sentences, many people in the UK would normally use the -t form (though you will also hear, and see, the -ed form). Americans, however, almost always use the -ed form.
Then grammar. As the following sentences illustrate, past participles can also be used as adjectives, appearing either before the noun or after part of the verb to be:
You should never eat burnt toast.
That toast is burnt.
It’s no use crying over spilt milk.
In such cases, the -t form is widely used, both in the UK and the US. However, there is one major exception to this pattern (in so far as you can call it a pattern), and that is learned. It is always spelt with -ed in those grammatical circumstances:
Some people believe anxiety is a learned response (‘acquired by learning’)
Such behaviour is not innate: it is learned.
When learned means ‘highly educated, erudite’, it also has a different pronunciation (LERN-id):
A learned man (‘highly educated’), a learned remark (‘erudite’)
She was very learned indeed, especially in the field of hermeneutics.
Now you can demonstrate to family and friends how learned you are, by explaining how fuzzy the whole business is…
©2013 Baxter Publishing, Hilversum, The Netherlands