The Grammarphobia Blog

Steep learning curves

Q: I recently came across a blog post about a struggling rookie football player “experiencing a steep learning curve.” The author clearly intended to say the athlete faced a long, difficult learning process. However, it’s my understanding that a steep learning curve would depict learning something very quickly. Why not replace this inaccurate cliché with “steep hill to climb”?

A: Technically, you’re right. A learning curve is a graph that represents the rate of mastering a skill against the time required to master it. A steep learning curve would therefore show the quick and easy mastery of a skill.

The lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define the term “learning curve” in pretty much this way.

But the people who actually speak and write the English language generally seem to use “learning curve” in a figurative way that has little to do with its technical meaning.

Thus, a “steep learning curve” in common parlance refers to the difficulty of learning something.

In a search of the New York Times archive, I found 108 references to “steep learning curve” since 1981. I checked out a few dozen, and all of them used the expression in the “inaccurate” figurative way.

I suspect that the lexicographers at my favorite dictionaries are a bit behind the curve here, and that they’ll eventually catch up with the rest of us.

I agree with you, however, that “steep learning curve” has become a bit of a cliché and that perhaps we should give it a rest. I’m not sure that a “steep hill to climb” is the answer.

In looking for a better way to describe such a challenging situation, you may face a steep learning curve.

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