Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Graduation Day

A relentlessly curious customer of this blog asks, “When did Americans start saying ‘I graduated college’ instead of ‘I graduated from college’?” Always eager to provide customer satisfaction, I got the facts. Actually, it’s hard to pin it down to a specific date like July 17, 1953—but it was probably sometime in the mid-twentieth century. Such usage is a misunderstanding of the meaning of graduate—and, for that matter, so is “I graduated from college,” although that phrase has graduated to grammatical respectability

The transitive verb to graduate means to “move (someone) to a higher degree,” and the original usage of the word in the sixteenth century was that the college or university graduated the student. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1588 document with the phrase “to commence or graduate such students as have finished their course.” The student, somewhat passively, was graduated.

By 1807 to graduate was being used in an intransitive sense with the student as the doer, so that a student graduated. If you wanted to know at what institution this procedure occurred, you added a prepositional phrase, such as “at Jack Rabbit University.” After a while, clearly demonstrating eagerness to escape from the clutches of their educational institutions, people began to graduate from someplace.

Sometime in the 1950s, people (maybe the same people) began to drop the from, and the verb became transitive again, with the institution rather than the student as the direct object, as in she graduated college. Like people shouting into cell phones in public places, to graduate college is heard more and more frequently nowadays. But even though the president of Jack Rabbit University, or Harvard for that matter, may use the phrase, it is still sub-standard English.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose graduation days were greeted warmly by all of his teachers, offers this valediction:

     I fear you will not graduate,
     Now please don’t cry and snuffle.
     It really is too bad you ate
     Your prof’s last chocolate truffle.


  1. It occurs to me that you might explore the etymology of "nub"--as in, "If any student of mine reached for my last truffle brownie he would have pulled back a nub."

  2. I proudly stand up for the passivity of the student when I edit the ... well, never mind. When I do my editing work, let us say. I always change "He graduated from medical school ..." to "He WAS graduated from medical school ..." because it is obvious to me [especially when I edit the writings of certain MDs] that it was the medical school that did most of the work!