Q: The word “learnings” is popular in scientific settings, but to some of us it’s just bad grammar. Your thoughts please?
A: The word “learnings” is popular not only in science, but also in academia, business, finance—in fact, it’s common with all the usual suspects when the subject of unidiomatic English comes up.
Perhaps the most popular use of the term is in the broken English of Sasha Baron Cohen’s mockumentary Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
We’ve found hundreds of other examples of the usage online, including the “Best Practices & Key Learnings” page about diversity on the University of Cincinnati’s website.
Here’s one from the website of the Center for Sustainable Energy: “Learnings from California’s Market Transformation Programs.”
And this example is from Worldreader, a site that encourages literacy around the world: “Learnings From Libraries.”
The word “learnings” is being used here as a synonym for plural nouns such as “findings,” “conclusions,” and “results” as well as singulars like “upshot” and “takeaway.”
We wouldn’t describe this as bad grammar. Rather we’d say it’s an unidiomatic usage, or perhaps a possible new usage in its infancy, or even the revival of an old usage from the 17th century.
In Cymbeline, Shakespeare uses the word “learnings” in the sense of “lessons” or “instructions,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
In the play, written around 1611, the King takes an orphaned baby into his protection and “Puts to him all the learnings that his time / Could make him the receiver of.” (We’ve expanded on the OED citation.)
Francis Bacon, in The Elements of the Common Lawes of England (1630), uses the term in the sense of teachings or doctrines: “Particular and positive learnings of lawes doe easily decline from a good temper of iustice.”
The OED also has examples from the 1600s of “learnings” used to mean a branch of learning or a science, but the dictionary doesn’t have any citations for the plural word after the 17th century.
Yes, “learnings” has a history, but it sounds to contemporary ears (at least to our contemporary ears) as bureaucratese, academese, or corporatese.