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Which version of this sentence is correct?

  • Doctoral students about to graduate, like me, often debate about what qualities make a successful scientist.
  • Doctoral students about to graduate, like me, often debate what qualities make a successful scientist.
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I think "debate about" is more common. –  rayn Sep 13 '12 at 18:46
    
@rayn: What planet do you live on? The form debate about barely exists at all in a global context - I find it hard to believe it's actually "more common" in any specific community of native speakers. –  FumbleFingers Sep 13 '12 at 22:54
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What a bizarrely angry comment. I also think "debate about" is more common, at least in my own community (though you may argue that a community of British students is not any particular authority on anything). I find it hard to make this sensibly google-able, though, firstly because "debate about" is still correct when "debate" is a noun, but secondly also because "debate about" is clearly more colloquial than "debate". –  Billy Sep 14 '12 at 2:07
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@FumbleFingers, while I normally find your instincts about things like this spot-on, I think you're generalizing inappropriately from your personal experience here. While I don't hear it as often as the other form, I definitely hear people say "debate about" regularly. It sounds a little uneducated, but it's clearly something that native speakers say. –  alcas Sep 14 '12 at 2:32
    
Also, "we debated" returns 512,000 google hits and "we debated about" 419,000. The results for the latter all sound natural to me, albeit informal. Here are some examples from the first page: "We debated about Math" (title of an m4w on Craigslist) "Question we debated about at work today" (title of a forum thread) "We debated about whether to post this one" (preceding a gruesome image) "Remember that surrogate mother we debated about?" Actually, to me, that last one REQUIRES "about". Without "about", it means that the speaker engaged in a debate against the surrogate mother. –  alcas Sep 14 '12 at 2:36

4 Answers 4

If you are using 'debate' as a noun, you use 'about'~ "There will be a debate about [sth]"

If you are using 'debate' as a verb, you don't use 'about' ~ "They will debate [sth]"

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I'm not going to say "debate about" is exactly "wrong", because there's no incontrovertible principle of grammar to back that position up. But to be honest if I heard it, I'd downgrade my opinion of the speaker's linguistic competence.

Note that they debated whether [to do this, that, or the other], has 11,700 hits in Google Books - compared to 87 for "they debated about whether" (i.e. - it's definitely "non-standard").

Here's the broad picture on OP's usage... enter image description here

I assume the reason we see this form at all is that because some people think that if...

they debated far into the night = they talked far into the night

...and...

we talked politics = "we talked about politics"

...they can extrapolate to we debated about [some topic]. Personally, I think such people are probably either careless or ignorant, regardless of whatever supposed "rules" of grammar apply. If nearly everyone uses one form, it's perverse to use another.

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You're making the extrapolation seem more far-fetched than it should. It probably just stems from the fact that "debate about" is fine when "debate" is a noun: "I can't stand the debate about whether vaccines cause autism", or similar. –  alcas Sep 14 '12 at 2:28
    
@alcas: I don't see what the noun usage has to do with it. Historically, "a debate on" is three times more common than "a debate about", but I don't think anyone would see that as justification for OP using "on". People normally just "debate whether XXXX", not "on/about whether XXXX". But you can't say they are having "a debate XXXX" - you need a preposition (on, about, over) before XXXX there. –  FumbleFingers Sep 14 '12 at 2:52
    
@FumbleFingers The beginning part of your answer should have been the only thing here. The rest of your answer is nothing more than a matter of your personal preference. –  Souta Sep 14 '12 at 18:56
    
@Souta: It's not just my personal preference - it's overwhelmingly the majority opinion, as the usage figures clearly show. –  FumbleFingers Sep 16 '12 at 20:39
    
@FumbleFingers Regardless, the basis is "it is a matter of preference". It doesn't mean that it is wrong. Why does everyone think that just because the majority say it differently, that the lesser-spoken is automatically wrong only on the foundation that it is 'not as used'? Furthermore, to add in your own tidbit about how you'd find someone using that phrase, you'd downgrade my opinion of the speaker's linguistic competence and then say Personally, I think such people are probably either careless or ignorant. That was completely unnecessary and VERY rude. –  Souta Sep 16 '12 at 21:08

The verb can be used with an object and without, so it is both. Either is therefore correct.

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-1 The fact that you can say "John and I debated for hours" (intransitive, no object) and "John and I debated the issue for hours" (transitive, object = the issue) has no bearing on whether people actually say "John and I debated about the issue for hours". They normally don't. –  FumbleFingers Sep 13 '12 at 22:58
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Well I suppose we could debate about that, but whatever. –  JeffSahol Sep 16 '12 at 1:01

While using about isn't wrong, I'm agreeing with everyone saying it is quirky sounding. Normally one would say

I like to debate politics.

She constantly debates over debates.

We love debating the lifestyles between cats and dogs; I personally feel like cats have it better.

I just finished a debate with a friend, arguing if marijuana should be legalized.

For your example:

Doctoral students about to graduate, like me, often debate what qualities make a successful scientist.

That sounds fine as it is. This sentence [imho], about would seem superfluous.

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