“Graduate” or “be graduated”? Graduation on the active/passive divide

On the radio tonight I heard a person use passive “graduate” in a sentence:

She was graduated a year early, because she was a top student

I’m aware of this usage, and vaguely aware that it can be cited as “correct” usage by mavens. But while I’ve heard the transitive active form (e.g. “the school graduated twenty students”) I’ve never heard it in the passive voice (e.g. “s/he was graduated”) in real speech, and since the active intransitive (e.g. “she graduated”) is perfectly normal, the usage struck me as an affectation. Mindful of the recency illusion, I thought I’d consult the usual sources:

OED2 gives the first sense of the verb “graduate” as:

I.1 trans. To admit to a university degree. Also with complement, indicating the degree obtained. (Cf. sense 3.) Now rare exc. U.S.

The first recorded use is from 1588:

1588 Parke tr. Mendoza’s Hist. China xiv. 95 To commence or graduate such students as haue finished their course.

In the U.S., where it still wasn’t rare at the turn of last century, this sense goes passive, as illustrated by Emerson, and most awkwardly (to my ear) in Harper’s Magazine:

1844 Emerson Lect., New Eng. Ref. Wks. (Bohn) I. 262 Some thousands of young men are graduated at our colleges in this country every year.
1884 Harper’s Mag. Nov. 813/1 The class of ’76 was graduated with six men.

Not recent, therefore, to have been graduated. But current? For this, OED2 can’t help, so it’s off to the n-grams we go. The first two charts [click to big-em] show roughly what I expected, which is that passive graduate is almost nonexistent today, and was always a minority usage. The last chart  makes things much more interesting. More on this below the graphs–tograduate


 So far, so good. But how to reckon those two more or less similar curves with the following crazy curve?hegraduated

Having inspected a small sample of the cites in the “he was graduated” range from 1900 to 1925, most seem to be very much of the sort I noticed tonight, for instance:

  • He was graduated from Jefferson Medical College in 1877. [1905]
  • He was graduated from the University of Michigan in 1858. [1909]
  • in 1866, he was graduated from the literary department in 1870. [1912]
  • the Menasha high school from which he was graduated [1919]
  • Oct., 1929, when he was graduated [1930]

All these sources are American. I can’t shake the impression of affectation in usages like “when he was graduated”, but according to the n-grams, this was a majority usage at the time.

There remains the issue of the difference between that final graph and the first two. Query selection is everything in this game. The last query returns about same levels of frequency (count the zeroes to the left of the digit on the Y axis) as the first graph, so it’s not a likely question of scale. Originally I was somewhat puzzled by both the scale correspondence and the discorrespondence in the curve. Now my best guess is that the queries for the first two graphs aren’t analogous to the third, and that the third is the best.

I think the first two curves are allowing lots of transitive usages into the results that are meant to be intransitive – e.g., “they graduated”, normally giving something like “they graduated (from) high school together” could also admit (actual) instances like:

  • They graduated that year from 6 to 23 students each [1929]

… where “they” is the schools, not the students.

And, much worse, “to graduate” can also admit such frequent adjectival uses as:

  • Open to graduate students only. [1929]

So perhaps my “he was graduated” query is really getting to the heart of the matter.

But then, how to reckon with this:



No Comments

Leave a Reply