I Graduated It

Graduating seniors at Brown University in Prov...

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Some people say “I graduated high school”; others say “I graduated from high school.” Which is correct?

This was one of those little language posers that nagged at me from time to time. One version has to be wrong, right? I eventually bothered to figure it out, and I feel so much better now. I pass my insight on to you.

The Basics

Properly constructed English sentences have two basic forms:

[Subject] [intransitive verb].

or

[Subject] [transitive verb] [object].

(The other sentence elements are all optional.)

A verb has to be used one way or the other – in a transitive or intransitive form. A transitive verb performs an action on something – the direct object. An intransitive verb stands on its own. So which form does the verb to graduate fit (in the sense of completing a process and moving on)?

The Test

If you say “I graduated high school,” that would make “graduated” a transitive verb, performing some action on the noun phrase “high school,” which is the direct object. (FYI, “from high school” is a prepositional phrase.)

Can one “graduate” something (aside from a measuring cup)?

Here’s a test: with transitive verbs, swapping the subject and object should produce the same meaning in a passive form:

[Subject] was [verb]ed by [object].

As in “High school was graduated by me.”

Huh? You can do various things to high school: you can praise or criticize high school, you can promote or discover high school, but I don’t think that it makes any sense to “graduate high school.” High school didn’t get graduated; you did.

(Note that in passive form, the former subject is now just the noun in the prepositional phrase “by me,” which we need to convey the same content as the original sentence.)

The Conclusion

So in this context, to graduate must be intransitive: “I graduated” with optional bits tacked on. You can’t follow an intransitive verb with a noun phrase (e.g. “high school”), but the next part of the sentence can be a prepositional phrase; for example, “from high school.”

So by this analysis, the correct form for saying you graduated is

[Subject] [intransitive verb] [prepositional phrase].

As in “I graduated from high school.”

By the way, several online sources point out that the traditional use of to graduate can be transitive if a specific learning institution is the subject: “My high school graduated me.” However, my favorite source, the Free Online Dictionary (as well as others), confirms that the reverse (“I graduated high school”) is widely considered to be bad form. I concur heartily.

Thank you, and good luck in your future endeavors.

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Posted on 4 October, 2010, in My Native Language and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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