News & Commentary

It’s time to take our learnings seriously

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Earlier this year, before the Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy zeroed his attention to the highways and roads of this traffic-jammed city, he posited the view that it was a damn fine idea to send the police back into the classroom.

Ten schools deemed to be “at risk” (the parameters of risk aren’t quite known) would have full-time police officers assigned to them in a two-year trial. Mr Guy said at the time: “This is about combating crime before it’s a problem, it’s about respect, it’s about tolerance. It prevents crime before it becomes crime, before it is a problem.”

Now there’s nothing like a touch of the Taser to quieten down the youth of today causing bother in the class and on the streets, but there could be another avenue of corrections on which the police could walk.

Perhaps in a break from the law enforcement lessons, they could tackle the insidious vandalism that is destroying this great nation.

I write of the destruction of language.

The youth are not entirely to blame for this, and thus it would be an exemplary service for the greater good of society, if the officers were to help nip it in the bud. Children, after all, are only the sponges soaking up, well mainly soaking up, what drips of knowledge expire from their elders and blink at them from their smartphones.

No, it’s at the fountainhead that the patrolling needs to be done. There is a limit to the destruction of what is right and good.

And learnings is it.

People are taking their “learnings” seriously, and in this case, it’s a worry. It may seem a small thing, adding an s on to a word but it makes a fool of the user and a mockery of the language.

As the website The Grammarist, says: “Learnings is a pluralisation of an erroneous form of learning as a singular noun. Said singular noun (eg, a learning) does not exist, at least according to most dictionaries. Colloquially, especially in the medical field, learnings means specific items that were newly discovered or learned.”

Learning dates from Middle English, about the 14thCentury, but its mutant variant dates only from the beginning of this century. It arose from those purveyors of twisted syntax, the denizens of the corporate and management world. It became a buzzword, and thus indispensable. It was, and has continued to grow into, a secret word for the initiated. One knows a member of the same club by one’s common words. “How are your learnings coming along, alright?” “Yes, had a good session. Really starting to go places with all these learnings.”

People are taking their “learnings” seriously, and in this case, it’s a worry. It may seem a small thing, adding an s on to a word but it makes a fool of the user and a mockery of the language.

Really, it’s speaking in tongues for the dumb.

Sacha Baron Cohen lampooned this in the 2006 film title Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

This invasion of idiocy has even been too much for 7.30 host Leigh Sales who recently tweeted, and for Radio National host Fran Kelly, to retweet: “Crusty old bag alert: why did people start using ‘learnings’ as a word? There’s an actual proper word: lessons.”

It goes across the Tasman, too, NZ Labour Party MP Deborah Russell tweeted: “Reading some papers for the Environment Select Committee meeting this week but brought to a complete halt by ‘learnings’. Lessons is a perfectly good word.”

Indeed it is.

Many will say that since language is a living, breathing thing, it will always be open to evolution. This is true. Words change: some die, some are born. Chaucer’s world, and  Shakespeare’s, are not ours. As objects or actions become a new part of our society and our lives, so language adapts. Inventions play an important role in this.

This evolution is no more in evidence than in the work of wordsmiths employed by news mastheads to patrol the grammar in their publications. It’s an irony, none really care to admit openly, that everything is set in stone until the enemy assails the castle of style’s ramparts. This foe is the dreaded phrase “common usage”. For then whatever has been denied, is allowed. The people have spoken.


Well, let them never speak abundantly of the learnings of the day.

We have a word for it. It is a perfectly good word. It is lessons.

In an age where social media has condensed conversation into button faces and abbreviations, let the pedant police win this one.

4 responses to “It’s time to take our learnings seriously

  1. As you might expect, Warwick, I found this a wonderful and erudite contribution
    to a debate far more people ought to have.
    Last year, while visiting a friend in Darwin, I passed a building on the campus of
    Charles Darwin University and remarked to my friend, who was driving, “That’s
    wrong. Go back.” He did a doughnut at the next intersection, hoon that he is, and
    acceded to my bidding. There, prominent on the building’s facade, were the words
    CEN TRE OF INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGES. I pointed out to him that there was no
    reason to pluralise knowledge. It wasn’t a ‘countable noun’, anyway: you don’t speak
    of someone having ‘a knowledge’; it’s a mass noun and, as such, doesn’t (or oughtn’t to) have an s appended, no matter how many things one knows.
    Know that? The very next week, that letter S arrived in my mail. My friend,
    a practising anarchist as well as a hoon, had revisited the campus and, in a
    midnight raid, removed the supererogatory consonant, posting it to me – along
    with a photograph of the now correctly formulated title – as proof.
    I thought that would be the end of the matter. I certainly wasn’t going to the police
    about it, and, as a newly created man of letters, decided to wear my pride quietly
    and tell only Lynne Truss, and then only in the unlikely event of our running into
    each other, swearing her to secrecy.
    But there was a sequel: at the end of last year my anarchistic hoon mate sent me a
    new photo, of the same facade. It seems it took the tertiary authorities several
    months to notice the missing letter and then – no doubt after a protracted faculty
    meeting – decided that, since there was disagreement about whether ‘knowledge’
    should have a plural or not, the best course would be to remove all the other letters.
    The facade is now blank. This exquisite solution has the singular virtue of making
    the university invulnerable to the suggestion that it has created or retained
    any grammatical error at all in this sign. Certainly it has not done either of those
    things unwittingly, though in every other respect its action is the very epitome
    of unwittingness.
    Your splendid article touched off this reminiscence – of which I cannot give you
    the gleanings so much as the leavings. I suspect there are lessons in that for
    many of us, but are they learnings, I ask you.

  2. Warwick, as a very long serving teacher I hover above the grammar wars like a wasp, sometimes entering a skirmish on one side, sometimes the other, but in the end ineffectual in maintaining or changing the nature of polite conversation. In this case however, whilst I agree that learnings is a clumsy and ugly term, I think both perpetrators and critics miss its intended meaning, that is as the sum of all that has been learned rather than individual lessons. I would prefer words such as knowledge, understanding or grasp of the complexities of an issue.

    It is no longer acceptable to claim knowledge, in the combative world of the 24 hour news cycle to do so risks placing oneself at the end of the left-right dichotomy. Rather, it is safer to position oneself as a ‘life long learner’, even if a willing combatant in the discourse of party politics. And don’t get me started on life long learning as a statement of the bleeding obvious and one of the best weazel terms going around.

    Now please excuse me whilst I pop out to the supermarket and refrain myself from taking a red pen to today’s special’s.

  3. I love the way this article, and its replies, touch lightly at the edges of one of those huge social changes that we find ourselves surrounded by, recognise it or not, like it or not. “lessons” imply that we have learned from somebody. Gratitude may or may not be involved. “learnings” imply that some osmotic process has taken place by which we now know LOTS more than we used to, and gratitude is completely unnecessary.

  4. Thanks Warwick, one of my pet peeves.

    Here’s another one: when my daughters were in primary school, they talked of having to do a “recount” of an event. “Do you mean an ‘account’ or ‘to recount a story’?”. No, it was there in writing: “a recount”. I dug around and found this is official NSW EdDept terminology.

    My hypothesis is that some piss-taker in Bridge Street said to a colleague: “I’ll bet you I can turn a verb into a noun and get it in the dictionary.”

    I think “learnings” is in the same category.

    PS: Ken, loved your story too!

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