The Grammarphobia Blog

Graduate school

Q: In the recent New Yorker piece about the father of the Sandy Hook killer, Andrew Solomon writes that Adam Lanza’s older brother “moved to New Jersey after graduating college.” GRADUATING COLLEGE?  Shouldn’t that be FROM college?

A: We read the same article in the March 17 issue and had the same thought: How did “graduating college” make it through the New Yorker’s copydesk?

Pat’s feeling was that copy-editing standards at the New Yorker might have slipped a notch. But Stewart wondered if the construction had passed into standard English usage since we discussed the issue on the blog eight years ago.

We decided that we ought to reexamine this subject. So in the interest of open-mindedness, here goes.

Back in 2006, we said the verb “graduate” had evolved over the last two centuries, but not enough for this sentence to be considered standard English: “He graduated Stanford in 1986.”

Traditionally, according to our original post, there would be three proper ways to express that sentence:

● “Stanford graduated him in 1986.”

● “He was graduated from Stanford in 1986.”

● “He graduated from Stanford in 1986.”

Most of the usage guides we’ve consulted still object to a sentence like “He graduated Stanford in 1986.”

Why? Because the verb “graduate” originally meant to award a degree, not to receive one. The school graduated the student, not the other way around.

Over the years, the verb “graduate” has evolved, but usage authorities generally believe that the use of “graduate” in that disputed sentence strays too far from the original meaning of the verb. Here’s the scoop.

When the word first showed up in the late 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “graduate” was a transitive verb meaning to confer a university degree.

(A transitive verb is one that needs an object to make sense: “Stanford graduated him.” An intransitive verb is one that can make sense without an object: “He graduated.”)

The OED’s earliest example is from Robert Parke’s translation of The Historie of the Great and Mightie Kingdome of China (1588), by Juan González de Mendoza: “To commence or graduate such students as haue finished their course.”

And here’s a passive construction of the same transitive verb, from an 1884 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “The class of ’76 was graduated with six men.”

So in the earliest, transitive uses of “graduate,” it was standard to say either (1) that the school “graduated” the student, or (2) that the student “was graduated” by the school.

But in the early 1800s, the OED says, “graduate” underwent a significant change. It acquired an intransitive sense, meaning to take a degree or diploma.

In the intransitive sense (in which the verb has no direct object), the student is the one doing the graduating—that is, taking a degree or diploma.

Oxford has a several examples, starting with one from the poet Robert Southey’s Letters From England (1807): “Four years are then to be passed at college before the student can graduate.”

Late in the 19th century, we see intransitive examples with the institution added in a prepositional phrase (“from Stanford,” “from college,” etc.). The OED, which finds nothing objectionable in this construction, gives a couple of examples:

“In 1837 he graduated from Yale College” (the Times of London, 1892), and “Dwight was … able to graduate from High School at the premature age of fourteen” (Harold Nicolson’s biography Dwight Morrow, 1935).

About the time when people started adding “from” plus the institution, some usage commentators started to object that “graduate” was moving too far from its transitive roots.

In fact, the critics wanted to take a step back and abandon the intransitive usage altogether. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains:

“The critics argued that since the college conferred the degree on the student, graduate should only be used transitively with the student as its object or in the passive construction ‘He was graduated from college.’ ”

But as we know, “graduate” was already firmly established as an intransitive verb (as in Southey’s “before the student can graduate”). In hindsight, it was only natural that people would start adding prepositional phrases: “from college,” “from high school,” etc.

Despite the critics, this use of “graduate” was soon accepted and the criticism has long since disappeared. Today nobody thinks twice about a sentence like “Spot graduated from obedience school.”

But in the 20th century, the use of “graduate” shifted once again and a fourth usage emerged. This is the one we’re reexamining here, in which “from” is dropped (“he graduated college”).

What do the experts say about this newest wrinkle? So far, the disputed usage isn’t yet recorded in the OED, so we find no opinion there one way or the other. But most of the other sources we checked are holding the line against it. 

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), says the use of “graduate” in the sense “to receive an academic degree from” is a “usage problem.” It gives this example “How many chemists graduated the Institute last year?”

The dictionary notes that this newest use of the verb, “in which the student is the subject and the institution is the object, as in She graduated Yale in 2010,”  was rejected by 77 percent of the American Heritage usage panel.

Another source, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), includes this use of the verb (with the example “to graduate college”), but labels it “informal.”

Looking further, we find that Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), says the “newish” transitive use in American English, as in “he graduated Yale in 1984,” is much more controversial and is best avoided.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) seems to agree with Fowler’s. “In the mid-20th century,” Garner’s says, “usage began to shift further toward an even shorter transitive form: students were said to graduate college (omitting the from after graduate). This poor wording is increasingly common.”

On Garner’s “Language-Change Index,” this new use of “graduate” is rated Stage 3, for “widespread but ….” (A rating of Stage 1 means “rejected”; Stage 5 is “fully accepted.”)

We found only a couple of clear votes in favor of “graduated college.”

The Random House Webster’s College Dictionary lists this among its definitions: “to receive a degree or diploma from: to graduate college.”

A usage note in Random House adds that “although condemned by some as nonstandard,” this sense of the verb “is increasing in both speech and writing: to graduate high school.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) finds no problem with the disputed usage either and labels it standard English.

Merriam-Webster’s accepts, without qualification, the use of “graduate” in the sense “to earn a degree or diploma from (a school, college, or university).” It gives the example “she graduated high school.”

The editors at M-W provide their own usage note on the subject. They note the historical shifts in the uses of the verb, then go on to say that it’s the “newer transitive sense,” as in “she graduated high school,” that’s now condemned by some critics.

The dictionary says the newer usage remains “the least common,” while the one with “from” is the most common. But all of them “are standard,” M-W concludes.

Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “This use of graduate without from has been cited as an error” by usage commentators since 1957.

Nevertheless, it’s “probably established by now,” the guide continues, though “it appears to be more frequent in speech than in writing and is not nearly as frequent as the longer established intransitive”—the one with “from.”

 A rough Google search—“graduated college” versus “graduated from college”—confirms this. The version without “from” got 1.5 million hits, compared with 24.3 million for the version with “from.”

A search of Google Books is perhaps more significant in terms of written usage: 35,500 hits for the “from”-less version versus 3.6 million for the one with “from.” 

Our feeling is that “graduated college” still hasn’t made it into the Ivy League, though it may get there one of these days.

We’d call it informal. It’s OK in conversation, but until the usage is more established, we’d recommend tossing in a “from” when writing.

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