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I'm writing an essay about why people go to college. I want to express that there are many different reasons for going to college.

Many people, from very different background, attend college or university rather than enter workforce immediately after high school. The reasons may vary from trying to meet parents' expectation to fulfilling intellectual curiosity.

I'm not sure if I have used vary from correctly.

I'm wondering is it true that when using "reasons vary from A to B" reason A must be a simple reason and reason B must be a complex reason?

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5 Answers

up vote 1 down vote accepted

First off, since the "reasons" sentence follows one where the subject is "many people," I'd suggest using their reasons (instead of the reasons).

Also, you've only given two reasons, and there may be a host of other reasons as well. As far as I can tell, nothing puts these two reasons at the far ends of any spectrum of reasons. Some other possible reasons include: they are succumbing to a form of peer pressure (their friends are all going to college, so maybe they feel like they should go, too). Maybe they just see college as an easy way to get away from home. Maybe they see college as a necessary step toward a career goal. Maybe they want to be a college athlete.

With all that said, I'd remove the from-to construct altogether:

Many people, from very different backgrounds, attend college or university rather than enter the workforce immediately after high school. Their reasons may vary: some are trying to meet their parents' expectations, others seek to fulfilling intellectual curiosity, still others just want to get away from home. Some may see college as a necessary stepping stone to joining a profession.

I think the vary from .. to construct works better when there is more clear ordering in the variance. So, it would be more appropriate in a context like this:

Many people from very different backgrounds, varying from the poorest families, through the middle class, all the way up to the megarich, attend college after high school. These students may decide to enter college for several different reasons...

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Just to be clear: I'm not saying that I'd change the O.P.'s opening sentence in that way; I'm merely using that sentence as a convenient example to show a context where I would be more likely to use vary from .. to. –  J.R. Jul 10 '12 at 10:14
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Yes, I think that would be the order in most cases. There are, however, one or two other things not quite right with the passage. Background should be backgrounds, workforce should be the workforce and expectation should be expectations.

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If reason A and reason B are of the similar level of complexity, does it mean one should not use "vary from"? –  zjk Jul 10 '12 at 6:24
    
@zjk: In practice they seldom will be. But even if they are of identical complexity, they will at least be different, and that alone would justify the use of 'vary from . . . to . . .'. –  Barrie England Jul 10 '12 at 7:13
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In direct answer to your question I would say no. "Vary" may imply a continuum or spectrum between two options but it may imply that the reasons are "varied" in the sense of many differing reasons. Reading the sentence I would most likely infer the second meaning if there is no clear progression between the two options (cf. "the running speeds varied from 3mph to 10mph").

Aside: do you really mean "may vary" or just "vary"; is the variation something that is uncertain?

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I am not keen on 'vary' here because there is no clear sense of variation, which suggests changing. Changing from what to what?I would say '[the reasons] range from [this to that]. –  Barry Brown Jul 10 '12 at 15:34
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I think complexity is not a differentiation here. A and B should be as distinct as possible; not necessarily in the simple/complex sense.

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The subject sentence is of form "The reasons vary from Y to Z". Two separate issues arise: (a) whether reasons can vary and (b) whether X and Y are on a defined axis. (Barry Brown earlier posted a comment about some of this, and J.R.'s answer touches upon it.)

For (a), if you take "reasons" as a fixed set of reasons, within which individual reasons do not vary, then write "The reasons range from Y to Z" rather than "The reasons vary from Y to Z".

For (b), one asks if the reader can perceive a path between Y and Z and interpolate other reasons into that path. Is there an obvious line between "trying to meet parents' expectations" and "fulfilling intellectual curiosity"? If not, neither range nor vary will suit, and you will need to avoid those terms when you reword your sentence.

In summary, reserve vary from ... to ... for cases where a variable ranges along a well-defined axis, and range from ... to ... where observations fall upon such an axis.

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