The Grammarphobia Blog

Learner driver or student driver?

Q: I see driver education cars with stickers reading “Learner Driver” rather than “Student Driver.” The phrase “Learner Driver” just doesn’t seem right to me. Is it?

A: Like you, we find the phrase “student driver” more idiomatic than “learner driver.” But we may be in the minority here.

It turns out that “learner driver” is more common—at least on the Internet—than “student driver.” The phrase “learner driver” gets almost four times as many Google hits as “student driver.”

What’s more, the Oxford English Dictionary has examples for “learner driver” going back more than 80 years, but it has no examples for “student driver.”

However, some googling suggests that the term “learner driver” is more popular in the UK than in the US. It’s also popular in Canada. (In Britain, learner drivers must display a red letter “L”—for “learner”—on their license plates.)

The OED’s earliest example is from Taxi! A Book About London Taxicabs and Drivers (1930), written by Anthony Armstrong (the pseudonym of George Willis): “Conversational freedom between … taximen and private ‘learner drivers.’ ”

This later example is from Paul Barry’s novel Unwillingly to School (1961): “If you hadn’t been a learner driver … I’d have booked you for that!”

And here’s an OED citation from the June 28, 1973, issue of the Times (London): “The learner driver holding up the traffic as he or she falters down the High Street is still part of the British motoring scene.”

All those examples are in a subentry in the dictionary for the noun “learner” used to mean “one who is learning to be competent but who does not yet have formal authorization as a driver of a motor vehicle, cycle, etc.”

In the phrase “learner driver,” the OED says, the noun “learner” is being used attributively (that is, adjectivally) to modify the noun “driver.”

The word “student” in “student driver” is also being used attributively.

Such a noun is sometimes called an “attributive noun” because the attributes we associate with the noun (“learner” or “student”) are used to modify another noun (“driver”).

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