Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

If You Can Say “Graduated College,” Can You Say “Graduated Harvard”?

Posted by Neal on May 31, 2011

Over at Visual Thesaurus, my latest column is on the annual (or at least, annually relevant) arguments over whether it’s grammatical to say that someone “graduated college” or “graduated high school” (or even “graduated elementary school”), instead of “graduated from college/high school,” etc. I talk about the different versions of graduate that take different combinations of direct objects and prepositional phrases, and put them in a larger context of verbal diathesis alternations. My columns are usually behind a paywall there, so if you don’t have a membership, you have several options. One, of course, is to get a membership for something like $20, which you might find worth it just for the articles alone, by Ben Zimmer, Nancy Friedman, Mark Peters, Stan Carey, and others. Another, of course, is not to bother reading the column. But now there’s a third option: Wait three months and then go to the Vocabulary.com magazine. There you can find the formerly premium content that is more than three months old.

Anyway, here’s a detail that didn’t make it into the VT column. For me, although graduate from college/high school is the normal phrasing, graduate college/high school is not too bad. However, once you put in the name of a particular school, you can’t drop the preposition. So to my ears, graduated college is a little sloppy but OK, whereas graduated the University of Texas is out. I asked my followers on Twitter what they thought, and got a couple of responses that agreed with me, but as I thought more about it, I began to wonder if speakers would say graduate plus a school name after all. Here’s what I found in a small search in COCA:

  • graduate from Harvard vs. graduate Harvard: 115 to 1
    The one example of graduate Harvard was I guess my middle-schoolers would be graduating Harvard this year if the bumblers at their school had know [sic] about this smaller class size.
  • graduate from (the) Ohio State University vs. graduate (the) Ohio State University: 5 to 0
  • graduate from Stanford vs. graduate Stanford: 40 to 2
    The two: I graduated Stanford, and I’m also a member of the Horror Writers Association, and Lives in Palo Alto, Calif, and graduated Stanford in’ 98 with a political science degree.

Feel free to try this with other school names, and report in the comments!

One of the Twitter respondents was L. Michelle Baker, who goes by the handle of corpwritingpro. After her first tweet (which stated that from was customary before the school name), she surprised me with this one:

Wow! A professional writer was not simply dismissing graduate high school, nor even grudgingly accepting it in informal contexts, but actually granting it fully standard status, complete with a semantic distinction between graduate high school and graduate from high school. Furthermore, the part about describing an accomplishment is precisely what I found in Beth Levin’s English Verb Classes and Alternations as the difference between, for example, walked on the grounds and walked the grounds, or escaped from New York and escaped New York. I’m confused by how graduating from high school denotes less of an accomplishment than graduating high school, but maybe the fact that speakers look upon graduation as an accomplishment is what’s driving the loss of the preposition. Have any other readers noticed, or developed in your own usage, a semantic distinction between graduate from X and graduate X? And does it matter whether X is a common noun like college or high school, or a proper noun naming the institution?

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7 Responses to “If You Can Say “Graduated College,” Can You Say “Graduated Harvard”?”

  1. Philip Whitman said

    I say graduated *from* highschool or college. Don’t know why, just always have.

  2. Joshua said

    “I graduated High School in ’82″ sounds perfectly fine to me. “He graduated Harvard” probably wouldn’t raise my eyebrows if I read it, though I don’t think I’d say it. Adding from to either also sounds fine. For some strange reason, though, “I will graduate Harvard in 2007″ sounds awful.

  3. annie thrope said

    this phrase has always been a bug-bear to me. you can’t graduate high school, because graduate is a transitive verb when a nominal group Goal is after it/the Complement. it becomes intransitive without a Goal, so you can say “i graduated”, but if you say “i graduated high school” it means, for me (and my other english speakers who do not live in the US) that i did something to the high school, that i made lines on it, perhaps, to graduate it, or i put a slope on it, or i allowed the high school to graduate. these fine distinctions of meaning are actually realised by grammar… sure, this changes over time, and i’m getting used to hearing people say that they graduated high school or harvard or whatever (perish the thought that grammar is now not taught even at universities). to graduate summa cum laude is not the same, btw, because the function is different, being ‘reflexive’ in function. e.g. one can also say, i graduated a fool, i graduated poorly, i graduated clean as a whistle…
    ah. yes. grammar cannot be reduced to syntax.

    • Florence said

      Annie, I appreciate your interest, in a world of “so what.” Makes me sad. Thank you and everyone else for posting about our passion of proper grammar.

  4. Florence said

    In formal announcements, such as engagement, wedding, or even obituaries, “was graduated from such-and-such school” to have been used. Passive. I suppose it is a thing of the past to see it written that way, but it was considered correct by the copy editors of these publications. I have even seen it written that way in college quarterly “newletters.”

  5. Katie said

    Thanks for setting up this timely topic. I’m enjoying everyone’s input, and I just have one thing to add at this point. The way I understand it, “magna cum laude” is a prepositional phrase meaning “with high honor.” It’s not grammatically parallel to the name of an educational institution and can’t be taken as the object of “graduate” (even if “graduate” is considered a transitive verb).

    • Neal said

      That’s true, almost. It means “with great honor”; summa cum laude means “with highest honor”. Translated this way, it certainly isn’t grammatically parallel to a direct object. I just found it interesting that it could be seen that way by someone who (presumably) doesn’t know the translation or doesn’t think about it, and just takes it as an English word (albeit a borrowed one).

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