Episode 276: May 26, 2011
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Because it’s graduation season, my inbox is filling up again with complaints about people who say things such as “We’re so proud of Jimmy; he graduated high school this year.” For example, Bill T. wrote,
“Do you graduate high school, or do you graduate FROM high school? I don't think one can actually graduate a high school. Some trick to do that! This has really bugged me - please advise.”
I covered the topic a few years ago (“Graduated” Versus “Graduated From”), but since then I’ve had a bit of a change of heart, and there are some interesting points to discuss, so we’ll talk about it from a different angle today.
First, if you held a gun to my head and made me say whether the phrase “graduated high school” is right or wrong, I’d say it is wrong. The current standard usage is to say someone graduated FROM high school (1, 2).
The tricky part is that looking back 70 years shows that “graduated” used to be used differently, and looking at current trends tells us that it’s starting to be used differently again. Language changes over time, and “graduated” seems to be a twitchy verb that’s always on the move.
The Old Way: “Was Graduated From”
Let’s travel back in time. In the early 1900s, conventional wisdom said that a school did the act of graduating students. Therefore, the proper way to use “graduated” was to say that Johnny was graduated from high school. That passive wording, “was graduated from,” was considered standard English.
But by 1963, H. L. Mencken declared in his book The American Language that the active form had triumphed over the passive form because of the American drive to simplify the language. In other words, people insisted on dropping the word “was” from “was graduated from college.” If you search Google Books, you can see the steady decline over time in phrases such as “was graduated from” and “was graduated from college.” (Do your own search.)
The Current Way: “Graduated From”
I’m willing to bet that to most of you today, “Johnny was graduated from high school” sounds odd and maybe even wrong. We say “Johnny graduated FROM high school.”
The Emerging Way: “Graduated”
Yet, here’s where it gets annoying. The drive to simplify still exists, and now people are starting to drop the “from” and say “Johnny graduated high school.” Again, if you search Google Books for phrases such as “graduated high school” and “graduated college,” you’ll see a steady increase over time.
Although careful writers will still say “Johnny graduated FROM high school,” sentences like “Johnny graduated high school” are showing up in more and more edited writing and are starting to become acceptable.
I know many of you are cringing. I am too. I hate the way it sounds, but you have to remember that 50 to 70 years ago a lot of people cringed when others dropped the “was” and just said what we consider normal: “graduated from high school.” They thought that sounded terrible and careful writers should stick with “Johnny WAS graduated from high school.”
“Graduated High School”: Like Overloud Talking
One thing I love about Bryan Garner’s book Garner’s Modern American Usage is that it addresses language change, and the newest edition has a language-change index that assigns a number to how acceptable a new usage is. Something at stage 5, such as the phrase “graduated from high school” is completely acceptable, whereas something at stage 1 is rejected--it’s out-and-out wrong. Garner places the newish usage “graduated high school” at stage 3, right in the middle. You’ll hear it a lot, even among professional writers and educated people, but careful writers won’t use it.
The funny thing Garner does is compare the stages on his language-change index to other scales. For example, in golf, stage 3 would be the equivalent of hitting a double bogey and in olfaction, stage 3 would be smelly (not foul, but not neutral). If you’re trying to place how annoying the phrase “graduated college” is, Garner would recommend imagining someone talking too loud in a restaurant or on the bus.
My advice is to be refined. Hit a hole in one and stick with “graduated from college.” It will make your English teachers proud.