What the heck are “learnings”?

By Maeve Maddox

Reader Paul wonders about

the legitimacy of the word ‘learnings’? I find myself wanting to use this word on occasion however feel it is not an actual word. wondering about “the legitimacy of the word ‘learnings’.”

My instinctive response was, “Of course it’s not a word! Who, other than Borat, would abuse the language in such a way?

However, before shooting back that answer, I took the precaution of searching the web. I was astounded to discover that there really are writers out there–presumably native English speakers–pretending that “learnings” is a word!

Learning as a singular noun is a perfectly idiomatic and useful word:

learning: The action of the vb. LEARN.  a. The action of receiving instruction or acquiring knowledge; spec. in Psychol., a process which leads to the modification of behaviour or the acquisition of new abilities or responses, and which is additional to natural development by growth or maturation… –OED

Renaissance thinkers called the revival of interest in Greek studies the “New Learning.”

A scholar possesses learning. Children may have learning difficulties.

I suspect that the pluralized form originated in the corporate world, but, because “learnings” sounds so supremely pompous, has been enthusiastically embraced by those other lovers of obfuscation: Educators and Social Scientists.

Preceded by the word new, it is especially popular in headlines and in committee names:

New players, new learnings –headline at Businessworld

Winds change direction with new learnings –New Zealand Department of Corrections site

Committee 10. SC5 Procedures and Learnings –ISO Standards site

Old Wisdom: New Learnings –lesson title at University of Illinois Extension site. The lesson is about proverbs like “A stitch in time saves nine.”

I couldn’t help wondering if students being taught this lesson would be encouraged to translate the proverbs into learnings-speak: The unique movement of a threaded pointed implement through fabric obviates the future necessity of numerous movements of the aforementioned pointed implement with the resultant outcome that time is retained for other pragmatic exertions of energy.

New Learnings Begin –blog about social media and large companies

New learnings from old understandings:conducting qualitative research with Māori. –title of academic paper listed at Social Care Online

There’s even a medical definition at The Free Dictionary:

new learnings: n.pl new suggestions and perceptions given to the unconscious during hypnotherapy to replace old restrictive messages.

Those who have the insensitivity to use it seem to prefer “learnings” to the more familiar and readily understandable word lessons. It’s a usage that probably has Orwell spinning in his grave.

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25 Responses to “What the heck are “learnings”?”

  • Cecily

    I recently came across “trainings”, which is similarly odd and ugly.

  • Syz

    Next time you might want to read past the first paragraph of the OED. You’d find that it backdates “learnings” (with a period-appropriate spelling) to 1483:

    1483 CAXTON G. de la Tour cxxxvii. Mvij, The thre enseygnementes or lernynges whiche Cathon gaf to his sone.

  • Frank Elliott

    “I suspect that the pluralized form originated in the corporate world, but, because “learnings” sounds so supremely pompous, has been enthusiastically embraced by those other lovers of obfuscation: Educators and Social Scientists.”

    Yea, verily! And you can add bureaucrats to the list.

    When I began to take writing seriously, I had to forget all those passive constructions and multisylabic words that my professors in college found so thrilling.

  • Amy

    I just went back to college after 11 years. My professor had this word (learnings) in the syllabus in regards to a writing assignment (“Describe your learnings as a result of this field assignment”). I was stumped and didn’t know what he expected me to say. Thanks for this post; now I can successfully complete my assignments!

  • John T

    I heard the chararcter Doug, on the “King of Queens” sitcom, tell his wife as she was pursuing further education, “You don’t need none of those fancy book learnin’s.”

    So it is a word!

  • W. E. Neaville

    A brief response to What the heck are “learnings”?

    If you agree that learning can be used as a noun, then as a noun it will take a plural ‘s.’ Learnings has a long and distinguished history regardless of how we may think it sounds.

    From the Oxford English Dictionary:

    a. 1362 LANGL. P. Pl. A. I. 174 That nis no treuthe of trinite but..a leornyng for lewed men, the latere forte dele. 1483 CAXTON G. de la Tour cxxxvii. Mvij, The thre enseygnementes or lernynges whiche Cathon gaf to his sone. 1611 SHAKES. Cymb. I. i. 43 The king..Puts to him all the Learnings that his time Could make him the receiuer of.
    b. c1386 CHAUCER Sec. Nun’s T. 184 Right as hym was taught by his lernynge He foond this hooly olde Vrban. 1606 SHAKES. Ant. & Cl. II. ii. 47, I did inquire it: And haue my Learning from some true reports.
    c. 1526 TINDALE Rev. ii. 24 As many as have nott this lernynge. 1549 COVERDALE, etc. Erasm. Par. Rom. 34 To expounde unknowen learnynges. 1560 PILKINGTON Aggeus Cij (Matt. xv. 9), Teaching learninges which are the commaundementes of men. a1625 BOYS Wks. (1629-30) 128 Christ the way, the truth and the life..The truth in his learning, the way for his liuing. a1626 BACON Max. & Uses Com. Law Pref. (1636) 2 Particular and positive learnings of lawes doe easily decline from a good temper of justice.
    d. 1570 BILLINGSLEY Euclid XI. xi. 315 It is no rare thing in all learninges..to haue one thing more generall then an other. 1605 BACON Adv. Learn. I. vi. §13 (1873) 49 He did send his divine truth into the world, waited on with other learnings. 1613 SIR H. FINCH Law (1636) 6 The rules of Reason are of two sorts; some taken from forreigne learnings, both diuine and humane.

  • Peach

    I could understand “learnings” in a sentence like “In light of these learnings, we will change our X policy…”

    I would not WRITE this sentence, but I could read it without cringing.

  • Cecily

    @W. E. Neaville said
    “If you agree that learning can be used as a noun, then as a noun it will take a plural ’s.’”

    I think your logic is faulty. Not all nouns are countable; those that aren’t can only be preceded by the definite article (the) and do not have plurals.

    The issue is whether words such as learning, training and information are countable or not.

    Despite the examples you found in the OED, I think it makes more sense, and sounds better, for these words to be uncountable nouns and hence only used in the singular.

  • W. E. Neaville

    @8.Cecily

    Even if mass nouns are not preceded by the definite article ‘the,’ it is a well known fact that mass nouns are often broken into individual parts by a form of ‘packaging,’ which does indeed shift the original meaning of the word. For instance, a kindergarten teacher may place an order for 7 milks and 6 juices. Milk is a mass noun, and as such should not be made plural, but because of its physical packaging, ‘milk’ is converted to a count noun.

    The likely intent of many writers who use a plural form of words like ‘learning,’ ‘training,’ and ‘information’ is to categorize or separate such aspects of these words by time, place, type, quality, etc. As a general rule, I agree in large part with the negative comments pertaining to the use of these words, and I am not inclined to use such words myself when our language provides such a rich selection of ways to state the same ideas, only much more precise.

    Such devices are a part of language. They have been around for a long time, and can be use effectively under the right circumstance. But language, like any beautiful landscape, can be marred by those who forget its purpose.

  • Cecily

    W. E. Neaville: I would be unimpressed with a kindergarten teacher who ordered “milks”, rather than “cartons of milk” and I have never heard that usage (I’m England; maybe we’re stricter).

    I am no prescriptivist, but it sounds ugly, illogical and unnecessary to me.

  • Natasha

    It seems we have an etymological debate on our hands.

  • littlechicago

    Is “learnings” a real word? What about “Learning Excellence”? How about “Common Essential Learnings Foundational Objectives”? Our curriculums are full of learnings.
    Our governmental education ministry is called the “Department of Learning”.
    Our school division describes their vision as “Learning Excellence’.
    Is it just me, but for some reason I do not feel comfortable with all of this learning.

  • Cecily

    @littlechicago: Only the second of your examples uses “learnings” as a plural noun, which is the questionable usage. The others use the singular “learning” as a noun or adjective, which are both fine.

  • Jim

    I first heard about this abominable “word” in the context of healthcare improvement. Management makes everyone who goes to an educational meeting on the company’s dime fill out something called a “key learnings report”.

    I suppose that one’s expense account ought then to include an “eatings” report.

  • Rob

    In this sort of debate the question “Is X a real word?” (when the use of X by native speakers of the language is common) seems to me misplaced. Real words are words that speakers of the language actually use, however inelegant they may sound to some users. A natural language is constantly evolving, and dictionaries simply record snapshots at various stages of that evolution. Today’s neologism is tomorrow’s “real word”. The fact that “it’s not in the dictionary” may just meanthat the dictionary has not caught up with actual usage. That said, I am no great fan of “learnings”. I, too, think it’s pompous biz-speak. But the reason to reject it is not that it’s “not a word” but that it’s imprecise and and is often used to lend an air of importance and profundity to platitudes and truisms .

  • Anya

    I agree totally with Ron – neologisms tend to be rejected and scoffed at when they emerge (as do new tendencies in art, or other intellectual domains). If we all cast our minds back at the “birth” and gradual acceptance of so many of the words we use today so glibly, we’d probably find there was similar outcry. The time of prescriptive language is long gone, and thankfully today the dictionaries and grammars are taking their cue from what real speakers of the language are doing with language – look at the enormous surge in references to the Corpus as a data base. For language is about doing and living isn’t it? not just existing in a textbook!

  • Erik Deckers

    I always believed “learning” was a collective noun, just like “knowledge.” If I learn one fact, or 100 facts, I have amassed knowledge. I believed “learning” was similarly described.

    So I guess those 100 facts should actually be called “knowledges?”

    Somehow I don’t think I’ll be doing that either.

  • Irvin

    Please don’t blow my email inbox up, but . . . . I have gone back and forth with this word. Although I am hard pressed to find “learnings” plural as a word, Miriam Webster seems to have accepted “learning” as a noun in the form of information learned. Quite notably, “learnings” plural would be a likely plural form of the noun. This word may have simple just stuck with our language based on usage. And really, that’s how most words are formed. Check it out – http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/learning.

  • David

    I find it funny that many here are saying we shouldn’t use the word ‘learnings’ in order to avoid sounding pompous.

  • Dave Land

    Some insist that “lessons” would be a better substitute for “learnings”, which they view as an irritating bit of corporate-speak in the same league with “from the get-go” and “on a going-forward basis”.

    I beg to differ.

    “Lessons” are knowledge transfer explicitly *given* by an instructor to students, where teaching and learning is the goal.

    “Learnings” are knowledge transfer implicitly *taken* as a side-effect of taking part in an activity where teaching or learning are not the goal.

    I think the difference is useful. If we had another word for “learnings”, we’d use it. “Observations” or “realizations” come close, perhaps, but don’t connote receiving knowledge as clearly as “learnings”.

    That said, most people who say “learnings” are speaking or writing to impress, not to express.

  • Richard

    I am forever deleting “learnings” from management reports. Do you think our over-reliance on creative business consultants is to blame? I do. Can someone help me identify correct uses for “learned” and “learnt”? The former feels like past-continuous, the latter feels like past perfect. In corporate jargon “learnings” is often used when referring to “lessons learned/learnt” Are “learned/learnt” interchangeable?

  • Scott

    I think a lot of the postings here that call its use pompous sound a lot more pompous than people that I hear using the word learnings. I’m using the word learnings in my writing to express, not impress. I’m writing about the lessons I learned, but as Dave said, learnings more accurately describes what I took from my own reflections, not what was taught to me. Yes, I know learnings isn’t in the dictionary, just saying that it should be…

  • Lori

    Findings, insights, discoveries, results, observations, perceptions, lessons. There are so many perfectly good ways to avoid using ‘learnings’ that I just cannot fathom why any educated person would stoop to it. I suspect the recent outbreak of its use initiated in a non-English-speaking environment (where ‘informations’ is also common), and it is embraced by people who somehow think it is more modern or edgy than the other options. You don’t have to be pompous to care about protecting English from dumb jargon like ‘learnings,’ ‘trainings’ and ‘going forward,’ but given the speed at which the Internet allows these things to spread, we are probably doomed.

  • Guy Smith

    I find it highly ioronic that “learnings” is considered to not be a word, and yet “blog”, “spam”, “selfie” and “ebonics” are accepted into the common lexicon as if they had roots going back to the dawn of time. What a cock-eyed world.

    Language is constantly evolving, constantly moving to a different level of understanding. What was considered inappropriate speech 50 years ago is now common parlance (including a few Anglo-Saxon cuss-words); The language of people 200 years ago and more would barely be understood by many if they had to read a long tract of 18th-19th century English today. Take a look at the King James Bible from the 1600s, Shakespeare and Marlowe (mid-to-late 1500s), and Chaucer (mid-to-late 1300s), and you will realize that their language was very different from what we see today.

    Just because you may not like certain words or phrases that are used today, doesn’t mean that the words are any less valid. As I said before, language evolves. So should we.

  • Steve

    My “ask” would be to not convert verbs to nouns when perfectly good nouns exist that may be used for the same purpose.

    It makes one appear as a pompous windbag.

    I agree with other posters that the word is likely a result of a report produced by some corporate consultant tool. Other similarly annoying corporate words and phrases such as “concretized”, “baked-in”, “core-competency”, “robust solution”, etc., should get one banned from polite society.

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