What would graduation season be without complaints about the misuse of the verb graduate? Usage guides these days warn against using graduate as a transitive verb, as in "She graduated college," or "He never graduated high school." The standard phrasing uses the preposition from: "She graduated from college"; "He never graduated from high school."

Some usage guides go on to mention that a couple of centuries ago, even that phrasing was considered incorrect, because the proper subject of graduate was supposed to be the school, not the student. After all, the language watchdogs used to argue, it's not the student who's performing the action; it's the institution, because it's granting the degree or awarding the diploma. So instead of saying, "I graduated from the University of Texas," I would have said, "The University of Texas graduated me." Or if I really wanted to make myself the subject of the sentence, I would have used the passive voice and said, "I was graduated by the University of Texas."

Oh, wait. That's not right. The phrasing the usage guides claim was the proper way to phrase it back in the day is "be graduated from," as in "I was graduated from the University of Texas." So what's with the from instead of a by? Both phrasings were used in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to the Google Books Corpus, as was "be graduated at." By is the standard way of expressing an agent in a passive-voice verb phrase, so if the school or college really is the agent for this verb, why don't the usage guides recommend "be graduated by" instead of "be graduated from"? My suspicion is that "be graduated from" came about as a blending of "be graduated" and the newer intransitive "graduate (from)." H. L. Mencken, on the other hand, believed that "graduate from" developed from a simple shortening of "be graduated from," because it was just simpler. I learned this from Grammar Girl's updated podcast on graduate, released last week.

I want to leave aside "be graduated from" now, and look closer at the relationship between the version of graduate in which the school graduates the student, and the one in which the student simply graduates. A speaker who says, "The University of Texas graduated the class of 2011 yesterday" and also says, "The UT class of 2011 graduated yesterday" is not necessarily confused. They could simply be making expert use of an English diathesis alternation. (Bear with me!)

Diathesis (pronounced with the same stress pattern as dialysis) is originally a medical term, meaning a predisposition. I don't know how it got incorporated into a linguistic term, but a diathesis alternation is a situation in which a verb has more than one way of using its grammatical functions (i.e., subject, direct or indirect object, object of a preposition) to refer to the participants in an event (for example, agent, patient, or goal). (If you prefer a more transparent term, you could follow the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and call them "verbs with multiple patterns of complementation," sacrificing brevity for clarity.) One well-known diathesis alternation for scholars of English syntax is the so-called "spray/load alternation." You have a substance that you're spraying or loading, and the place where you're putting it. You have a choice between saying, for example, "Load these pallets onto the forklift," and "Load the forklift with these pallets."

You could fill a book with diathesis alternations in English, and Beth Levin of Stanford University has done just that with her now-standard 1993 reference English Verb Classes and Alternations. There's an entire subsection devoted to alternations in which the direct object of a transitive verb is the subject of an intransitive version of that same verb. A couple of these alternations fit the "school graduates student" vs. "student graduates" situation to a greater or lesser degree.

First, there's the causative/inchoative alternation. (I won't bother to define inchoative because I find it a poorly chosen term that will only confuse matters.) This is the alternation that allows you to say, "the water boiled" instead of "someone boiled the water"; "the ice cream melted" instead of "the ambient heat melted the ice cream"; or "the rock cracked" instead of "the freeze-thaw cycle cracked the rock." So in the same way, we could say either "I graduated" or "The University of Texas graduated me."

The trouble with lumping graduate in with causative/inchoative verbs like boil, melt, and crack is that these verbs are by and large verbs that can denote natural, agent-free processes. Graduation, no matter how you look at it, has someone taking deliberate action. A better fit in this regard is the induced action alternation, seen in verbs such as run. Lab rats can run a maze, or you can run rats through a maze (i.e., cause them to run). Likewise, students can graduate, or a school can graduate them.

A still better fit is the substance/source alternation. In talking about the last two alternations, I talked about students simply graduating, without saying from where. If I want to give due consideration to the from phrase, the substance/source alternation is the way to go. The canonical example of this one is "The sun radiates heat" vs. "Heat radiates from the sun." (Never mind that heat isn't a substance; like most English speakers, we can accept it metaphorically.) In one phrasing, heat is the direct object of radiate; in the other, it's the subject, and "the sun" shows up in a prepositional phrase. Ooze participates in this alternation, too: We can say either "The garbage bag oozed slime," or "Slime oozed from the garbage bag." Substitute graduated for oozed, the school of your choice (perhaps Texas A&M) for "the garbage bag," and the appropriate students for slime, and the parallelism is perfect. The linguist Arnold Zwicky has written about this kind of alternation on his blog.

Meanwhile, what about the newer transitive graduate, the one that has the students not merely graduating, but being so bold as to graduate the schools? Grammar Girl sees it as just one step further in the simplification that took us from "was graduated from college" to "graduated from college" to just "graduated college." She may be right, but it also happens that there are also lots of diathesis alternations in which something that shows up as a prepositional phrase with an intransitive verb appears as a direct object for an identical transitive verb. For example, when I bought a loaf of French bread from the grocery store bakery, a sticker on it said, "Thanks for shopping Kroger." Not "at Kroger," just "Kroger."

Levin calls these locative preposition drop alternations. With verbs that have their subjects progressing along a path, sometimes this path gets turned into a direct object by leaving out the preposition: "She walked (off) the plank"; "We climbed (over) the fence." Other times, it's just the starting point of the path that this happens to: "They escaped (from) the concentration camp." The sentences "She graduated from college" and "She graduated college" follow the same pattern. Now there's a comparison that impatient high-school seniors might appreciate: graduation as escape!

To sum up so far, the "school graduates student" version of graduate and the "student graduates" version may be an example of the causative/inchoative alternation, the induced action alternation, or the substance/source alternation. The "student graduates from school" and the "student graduates school" versions are part of a locative preposition drop alternation. So why, with so many uncontroversial diathesis alternations that graduate could be a part of, does it attract so many complaints? Nobody says you should say, "The freeze-thaw cycle cracked the rock" instead of "The rock cracked," or that you should say, "Sirius escaped from Azkaban" instead of "Sirius escaped Azkaban."

Maybe it's the fact that if you compare the old and new transitive versions of graduate, it can blow your mind: Not only is the patient of the old verb the agent of the new; the patient of the new verb is the agent of the old one! But if speakers can learn to deal with the contradictory meanings of words like cleave and sanction, the older and newer meanings of graduate should hardly pose a problem at all.


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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday May 31st 2011, 3:52 AM
Comment by: James W. (Fountain Hills, AZ)
Well, of course you have dissected it to the nth degree, and I understand and appreciate the education on the evolution of language. I will however, be continually annoyed by this "new" form. Sometimes you need the damned preposition. If you are standing on a landing at the top of a flight of stairs, and you jump to the ground, are you jumping the landing, or jumping from the landing? I would view the two as being entirely different. In any event - and I'll reveal my own silly prejudice at this juncture - when someone says "I graduated school", it sounds very much like they shouldn't have.
Tuesday May 31st 2011, 9:09 AM
Comment by: carolyn M. (ithaca, NY)
James W., I have the same opinion from you.
Tuesday May 31st 2011, 11:41 AM
Comment by: James E. (Tucson, AZ)
The phrase, "I graduated school" sounds much improved over the phrase "I don't gots no degree." So as schools are into relativism in all things, perhaps "that be what they is going for." Or as my grandchildren opine, "OMG!"
Tuesday May 31st 2011, 2:38 PM
Comment by: The Poet (Kellogg, IA)
It may be in the background of many minds that graduated has another meaning. I have not graduated cylinder nor have I graduated school in that sense.
Someone else struck the measurements used on the cylinder and in the school.
However, I have graduated from school.
Tuesday May 31st 2011, 11:45 PM
Comment by: Glen W. (Los Angeles, CA)
"So why, with so many uncontroversial diathesis alternations that graduate could be a part of, does it attract so many complaints?"

I wonder if the answer is simply the recentness of the change. The transitive form seems relatively new, and people raised without it are still alive to complain. In another generation, the complaining may be gone.
Wednesday June 1st 2011, 11:49 AM
Comment by: Edward A. (New York, NY)
In the news from Google:

"Today we’re excited to graduate three more features from the experimental testing ground of Gmail Labs. "

Seems like the Labs graduate them, rather than the features graduating themselves... old school.

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"Subprime" is a contronym: a word that is its own opposite.
"Sanction" is a contronym that can lead to political confusion.
How did "literally" come to be used so non-literally?