Should you say you “graduated from college,” “graduated college,” or “were graduated from college”?
Because it’s graduation season, my social media feeds are 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, but I’ve had a bit of a change of heart since then.
If you want me to just tell you what to do to be safe, I still have to say to stick with "graduated from," but I don't feel strongly about it anymore, and it's an interesting topic to explore.
If you look back 80 years or so, you'll find that the verb “graduated” used to be used differently, and current trends tells us that now it's being 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'
First, let’s travel back in time. In the late 1800s, conventional wisdom said that a school did the act of graduating students, so 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 even then, people were already saying simply "Johnny graduated from high school." (1) The usage guides admonished against it because people were doing it.
The current standard usage is to say someone graduated FROM high school.
By 1963, the fourth edition of H. L. Mencken's book "The American Language" said that the active form had triumphed over the passive form because of the American drive to simplify the language. (2) 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 Newer Way: 'Graduated'
Mencken was on to something. The drive to simplify still exists, and now people often 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 big increase in the last couple of decades, which means 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, but remember that 80 plus 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 English Usage is that it addresses language change with 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 “graduated high school” at stage 3, right in the middle. You’ll hear it a lot, even among professional writers and educated people, but he says 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.
Ten years ago, I found dropping the word "from" annoying. Today, I still say "graduated from college" myself, and I notice it when I hear someone say "graduated college," but I'm so used to it that it doesn't remotely bother me the way it did back then.
When I last wrote about this back in 2011, the AP Stylebook, Garner's Modern English Usage, and the Chicago Manual of Style said not to omit the word "from," and a little bit to my surprise, they all still do. I'll be surprised if they continue to make that recommendation in 10 more years.
Honestly, I can barely bring myself to advise against it, but if you are a professional writer, given that all the major style guides still recommend avoiding the "graduated college" phrasing, the one without the "from," it's still a good idea to stick with "graduated from college."
[This is an update to an article that was originally published in 2011.]
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